Soften fear of injury by using sponge balls

The Baltimore Sun

DEAR CAL -- While playing catch without his glasses, my son was hit by the ball, resulting in a black eye. Now he is afraid to stay in front of the ball. Any suggestions?

Steve Krawford, High Point, N.C.

DEAR STEVE -- This is similar to players who are afraid to stand close enough to home plate because they are scared that they will get hit with the ball. For those players I recommend getting some soft, sponge-rubber balls and almost playing dodgeball with them. Throw the balls at them at various speeds and prove to them, without them having to fear getting hurt, that they can get out of the way the majority of the time.

Perhaps the same approach can work with your son. Build his confidence by playing catch with him using softer balls. That way he can relearn the mechanics of catching the ball properly without worrying about getting injured. As his confidence builds, start throwing the balls harder, stressing that he catch the balls out in front of his body so that he can see them go into the glove. Also stress that he use two hands when catching, with the bare hand following the ball into the glove.

Once he is catching the ball regularly - and properly - using the sponge balls, explain to him that catching a real baseball is just as easy. Everything is done the same way; the only difference is that the ball is harder. Maybe after he catches about 20 sponge balls in a row, you can tell him that he's so good at catching that it doesn't matter what kind of ball you throw to him. At that point you can try tossing baseballs to him lightly, again building his confidence until he is ready to try to catch some more difficult throws. Remember to be patient and sensitive to his past history and his fears.

DEAR CAL -- My daughter recently quit her team because of disrespect shown by the coach. How should a coach talk to athletes in a way that commands attention but is also respectful?

Sharon Wright, Baltimore

DEAR SHARON -- Since I don't know your daughter's age, I will talk in general terms. Part of being a good coach is understanding your players' varying personalities and determining what methods of teaching and motivation are most effective for each individual. When I was growing up, whether right or wrong, it seemed more accepted for coaches to be more firm with young players. Punitive measures of discipline, such as push-ups or running additional laps, were common, and coaches thought nothing of raising their voices when correcting a mistake on the field. Were these methods appropriate? Probably not, but that was a different time.

Coaches today, much like educators, are under more scrutiny than ever, and young players seem to be more aware, knowledgeable and opinionated. I feel that it is really important for coaches to remain positive and to avoid publicly embarrassing players when mistakes are made. When a kid makes a mistake on the field, he or she knows what happened and needs to be encouraged. Berating a kid only is going to embarrass him or her and hurt his or her confidence. The coach and the team need that player to be physically and mentally prepared to make the next play, so the previous mistake can be discussed during a "teachable moment" between innings or even at the next practice.

Handling situations in this manner likely is going to instill loyalty among team members and should allow for a mutual respect to develop between the coach and his or her players. The environment will be less pressurized, which will lead to a more enjoyable atmosphere that is conducive to a higher level of play.

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