Saturday, March 28, 2009

Play Ball!

Baseball officially started for us today at 9am when Theo's Rainier District Little League coach pitch team had its first practice. Thanks to his Daddy and his Uncle, Theo loves the game. Unfortunately his primary teacher (that'd be me) knows very little about the sport or the skills.

I've spent the last few weeks gathering information about how to teach basic baseball skills. Several websites out there made great sense to me and, via a search on, I found our public library owns several highly recommended resources. 

Based on what I read, I've decided to take Theo's baseball practice in slow steps and make it part of our daily homeschool routine. After watching him at the skills day for the league, it was clear that he is comfortable with throwing, needs practice with his batting and struggles with catching. So in reverse order, we're working mostly on catching with a little throwing (mostly because the two are so closely linked).  As these skills mature, we've started to batting skills and practice.

The sources I've gotten the most out of so far are:
QCBaseball - webseite created by a man who played through college and coaches little leagues
Backyard Baseball Drills also by Marty Schupak

Focusing on catching first, one of the websites suggested children learn best if they start by throwing to themselves.  Also, most every source devotes several paragraphs to helping children conquer their fear of getting hit by the ball.  To this effect, Marty Schupak, introduces the "rag ball" - an ingenious device that consists of wrapping rags in masking tape to create soft "balls."  Since I was short on time for making rag balls, we started Theo's catching/throwing practice with a stuffed animal. He humored me with this for a few days until he could throw it up over his head and catch it about 20 times. We moved to a tennis ball from there and once he could throw and catch the tennis ball 100 times, I let him get out his mitt.  Figuring out mitt catching took him a few days, and after about a week's practice, he was successfully throwing the ball over his head and catching it with the mitt about 100 times easily.  

Wanting to get some fielding practice in, I started rolling Theo grounders in the living room. He found it hard and boring.  Our first viewing of the Marty Shupak video introduced us to the goalie game.  Theo stands between two chairs spread about 6 feet apart with his mitt and I try to roll balls past him.  He doesn't have to catch them, just bat them away from the goal.  Turns out this is hilarious to an 8 year old and he begs to do it over and over.  I notice the game has has him both moving his body to get to the ball and really focusing. Since we've been playing baseball goalie for a few weeks, I've started occasionally challenging him to catch the balls and throw them into a bucket to represent 1st base. I'm amazed at how his abilities have grown.

Once the throwing/catching to himself started to lock in, we made the rag balls.  Next to our rag ball construction area happened to be a blank wall where his sister had hung a homemade stop sign.  Theo started throwing the rags balls at the sign to test them and that immediately became the throwing spot.  He started by trying to hit the stop sign with the rag balls, again 100 throws.  At some point I suggested he throw the tennis ball (gently) against the wall to see if he could catch it.  Now he spends about 10 minutes every morning with the tennis ball and mitt, which makes a great alarm clock for anyone in the house who might have been still sleeping.

We've just started working on batting practice.  Thus far everything I've used comes straight from the Shupak videos.  One suggestion was a rag ball on a rope, using masking tape instead of duct tape.  I jumped on this immediately because I can't pitch.  Somehow, we're out of duct tape (Theo swears he knows nothing about this), so we tried with masking tape.  The batting practice was super fun for two days until Theo beat all the masking tape off the rag, so we're currently stuck waiting on a trip to the hardware store. 

I really like Schupak pointers for what good batting form should look like. Once we get the new tape, I'll be using several of his other tricks to help insure that Theo learns good footwork habits while batting.  

A few weeks ago, a super nice woman at playing Sunday morning softball loaned us her tee.  Along with the loaner came a quick lecture on how hitting off the tee is some of the best batting practice possible.  As this echoed more Shupak advice, I'm currently on the prowl for a hit quality tee and a tarp that Theo can hit into so we won't spend half the day chasing down balls.  

After several weeks of home practice, this morning was my chance to see how much progress we were actually making.  Most importantly, Theo had a great time - even though it was pouring rain and freezing cold!  And, I saw great strides.  His catching is wildly better than it was at the skills days.  He has a strong throwing arm, so I was stunned to see he didn't throw the ball all the way to the little boy he was partnered with more than once.  I was concerned the small kitchen space was stunting him and my first thought was that we need to get outside and do lots more long throws, which we will.  But it also turns out Theo didn't want to hurt the much smaller boy with the hard ball so he was aiming in front of him.  Isn't my boy sweet? 

Currently we have baseball built into our morning homeschool work.  I'm hoping to expand our equipment and games so eventually our time can involve a combination of skills games. As usual, because I am schooling two children, I need to find a balance with things he can do independently and games that require me. Here are my ideas thus far.

 - against the wall
 - relay games into tarp
 - catch with a real person
 - with ball on a rope
 - with tee into tarp
 - with soft toss rag balls
 - goalie games
 - pop fly games
Running and sliding drills

My favorite tidbit from everything I've seen and read so far is from Marty Shupak and I've taken it as my mantra:
Baseball practice should always be more fun than work.


Lefty said...

I've been using Marty Schupak's baseball videos for years. My favorite is "Baserunning & Bunting Drills". His concept of keeping it simple then reinforce by drills and repetitions, is a sure method for improvement. His philosophy of "progression teaching" thoughout the youth baseball season is also excellent. I've changed my whole way of coaching thanks to Schupak. He theorizes we as coaches are coaching to win championships rather than teaching baseball fundamentals and improving. I've had the best long term results from his methods.

FUNcoach said...

I agree whole heartedly with your final assessment. Keeping baseball fun retains youth in the sport. When over 1000 college baseball players were interviewed last year about the reasons they stuck with baseball, here are the rankings of their answers, 1) FUN 2) Friends 3) Professional aspirations 4) Parent 5) Coach
My favorite saying is don't work baseball, Play Ball!