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There's a Big Gap in How We Teach Baseball and Softball to Beginners

During my 23 years as a Little League coach and umpire, I developed a special interest in how best to teach beginners new concepts and motor skills. From my experiences teaching and observing, I’ve come to realize that there is an important gap in how beginning players are being taught baseball and softball.

What's the Gap?

Today, beginning players usually start with T-Ball, which makes good sense for a lot of important reasons. These are children primarily from 5 to 6 years old whose strength and body control are still developing. They usually fear a moving ball, have no hitting or catching skills, and they probably know very little about the group aspects; such as team-work, playing a position, base-running, paying attention, and the proper sequence of events during a game. T-Ball, in which the player hits a stationary ball, helps a young player to build basic body control (e.g., holding and swinging the bat) and acquaints the player with the group aspects of playing. These are precursors to learning the sport’s essential skills: how to hit and catch a real moving ball. Teaching catching is actually started in T-Ball and hitting a moving ball is left to be learned in the next Little League step (Rookie League, Coach Pitch or Pitching Machine), or its equivalent in other leagues.

Meanwhile it is well recognized that fear is the main barrier to learning for these kids. This is clearly stated in the Little League Guide to Tee-Ball (by Ned McIntosh and Rich Cropper, 2003, McGraw-Hill): “…Fear of being hit and hurt by a thrown or batted ball is the greatest psychological problem when teaching a child…”. And even if fear is somehow removed, learning to hit and catch is still a big step and means developing specialized hand-eye coordination essentially from scratch. T-Ball was invented precisely because beginning players naturally fear the ball and don’t yet have any playing skills. Currently, however, the next step after T-Ball is to learn hitting using a pitched ball, which must be thrown at least fast enough for the ball to reach the plate. And the catching taught during T-Ball is done at speed and is likewise scary for them.

What I see as the “teaching gap” for beginners is that there is no teaching method that eliminates fear of the real moving ball while building motor skills for correctly simulated playing conditions. Kids just have to learn either at speed, from drills best used for established players, or by practicing hitting with soft toss. Many players never do. Coaches actually seem to intuit the problem but they don’t have access to an alternative. The “toss them into the water” approach seems to assume (or at least hopes) that good players will learn, and those who don’t, will struggle and probably aren’t good players. But who can really know the true playing capacity of a child in this age group? And at this age, why should we ever want to set up a failure mode as a possible outcome? So what is a better way for beginners? How do we bridge this gap?

Beginners Learn Differently and Require Special Teaching Methods

I believe there are basic reasons why the “toss them into the water” approach isn’t effective with young beginners. In addition to fear, beginners are plagued by short attention spans and inability to keep their eyes on the ball, both in hitting and catching. The first stage of learning a new skill (i.e., one for which the child has few related concepts or muscle memory) is basically different than learning to improve on an established skill. This is due simply to the way all human beings learn. So I went back to what I knew from teaching in the classroom: all young children learn new things in small, simple steps under safe conditions. I decided to use this same understanding to teach the basics to beginning ball players. While working with many young boys and girls, I developed a simple tool that allowed me to completely control the location and speed of a real baseball or softball.

This teaching device (now called the SureHitter) enabled me to slow the ball down as needed to assure the players’ continuous eye contact with the ball and to remove their fear of being hit. I was able to do this in small steps of progressively higher ball speeds until I was simulating game conditions. This seemed to guarantee that they quickly formed the necessary muscle-memory patterns for hitting and catching. It turned out that this approach was very effective and really shortened their learning time. The key was to correctly simulate playing conditions but at a speed that removed fears, guaranteed eye-contact with the ball, and established correct muscle-memory. All of this was accomplished at close range so I could observe every aspect of the players’ responses and provide immediate feedback. This seemed to bridge the gap I found in traditional methods. I continue to work with beginners to this day, always looking to improve my techniques.

Solutions Come Quickly Once the Correct Problem is Identified

Tradition is a strong force, and baseball training has a long tradition. I believe that one of the most important issues in youth baseball is to recognize that there exists this teaching “gap” for beginners and then to find solutions. If you are a coach who has addressed this gap with your own special techniques, I would appreciate hearing from you. I feel this area of teaching beginners is quite special and deserves a lot more attention than it seems to receive.

Joel Grubman co-founded J2R2 LLC to develop and market his invention, the SureHitter. He can be reached at JGrubman@SureHitter.com Joel is a retired educator who spent 30 years working with students from elementary school through high school, 15 years as a teacher and 15 years as a school counselor. He is a longtime coach and umpire in both Boys’ Little League baseball and Girls’ Little League softball. He also loves playing, and in fact, continues to play both baseball and softball at the age of 62.