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Help me help my son learn to play baseball.
February 12, 2008 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I need some coaching tips and resource suggestions for a nine-year old boy heading into his first year of little league, please.

My (just turned) nine year old son asked us to sign him up for little league this year. While brilliant and talented in many ways, he has never before shown any interest or aptitude for atheletics. He's never really wanted to play catch or wiffle ball or anything like that. As a result, he is pretty terrible right now. Bad thrower, bad hitter, bad fielder.

He is also four years behind almost everyone he'll be playing with and I am worried about the other kids being mean b/c of his lack of skill - he's a real sensitive kid and I want to him to enjoy this experience b/c I think team sports can be a great learning experience for kids.

I know I can't turn him into Chase Utley before opening day (nor am I looking to) but I want him to be competent enough to enjoy himself and avoid derision. So, Mefites, what should I do? Suggestions on drills, videos, pep talks, etc anxiously awaited.

Stuff about him that might help inform answers/suggestions. He's a big kid - 4'9" and 94 lbs - which isn't helping him since he's got that too-big-for-his-age difficulty with coordination thing going on. He's left-handed and I'm not. He loves performing (plays, guitar, etc.).
posted by qldaddy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm actually having a similar problem with my 7 year old. I'm pretty lousy at throwing anything, and it's not a trait I want to pass on to the next generation. At the moment, we're playing a lot with these Stick-Ums Velcro Catch paddle. Great first step in learning how to throw and catch (I think it really helps develop the catching "reflex" while being much more forgiving than a regular mitt. You can even play inside (as long as there is nothing breakable around).
posted by bluefrog at 8:16 AM on February 12, 2008


Some basics of throwing:
-Step towards the target first with the throwing-side foot, then with the glove-side foot and keep your eyes on the target. Kids tend to fling their head to the side because they think it'll make the throw more powerful. Instead, it screws up their release point and they spike the ball sideways.
-Point your glove hand towards the target while winding back with the throwing arm.
-A lot of kids hold the ball up to their shoulder and shove it at the target. Instead, teach him to keep his arm long and loose, and have the forearm of his throwing arm swing back, down, then up and over for the throw, like a catapult (or, more precisely, a trebuchet)
-Teach him to dial his arm in with long toss. Kids like to start out fast, throwing the ball hard and strong and often badly. Even major leaguers have to find their release point again during warmup. He should start with easy, high tosses to the target, repeating until he can hone his release point more finely to make the sharp, fast throws.
-And, of course, grip. He should throw the ball primarily with his index and middle fingers and the thumb on the bottom to steady it (assuming his hand is big enough). Throwing with your palm makes it more of a change-up. You get a weakly-thrown ball that dies in the air.
-For follow-through, the arm should cross the body, with the hand winding up down near the glove-side hip.

I was never much of a hitter, but some of the very basic fundamentals are:
-Level swing. The bat should swing through the hitting zone parallel to the ground. Kids sometimes want to drive the ball skyward, but swinging at a sharp angle to that of the pitch minimizes his chances of making contact.
-EYE ON THE BALL! No matter how many times this gets drilled into kids' heads, you still see their head bailing out early and missing. Your eyes should be on the ball all the way to the point where it (hopefully) hits the bat.
-Don't squeeze the bat. If he's choking the life out of the bat, it tenses up his hands and forearms and makes the swing slow and tight. The bat should be held with secure but loose hands right until the swing starts. Alex Rodriguez described his swing as similar to snapping a towel at somebody. He also said that, in his batting stance, if someone snuck up behind him and took his bat, it would pop right out of his hands. Curtis Granderson of the Tigers waggles his fingers as if he's waving hello prior to the pitch. It's all because of the importance of staying relaxed and loose prior to the swing.
-Almost everyone holds a bat incorrectly. The bat should NOT be held deep into the web of the thumbs. The bat should rest across the part of the palm where the fingers and palm meet. Once the hands close, the two hands should line up along the upper fingers, NOT the first knuckles.
-Get him some batting gloves. The shock of hitting the ball with bare hands will bother him and make his swing even more tentative.
-Stress to him that he doesn't have to swing at every pitch. Take him to the cage, throw him some practice pitches (both of these should be at the speed he will face in the league) and give him an idea of his strike zone.

Fielding is more about learning what to do on a play, and I think his coaches will have to teach him that, since you could fill a book with it. He just has to be unafraid of the ball. So long as he can get himself in front of and down on grounders, and can approach fly balls with confidence, the rest is for his coaches. Practice grounders and pop ups, hundreds of times (say goodbye to your shoulder) will get him more comfortable. If he's in the infield, he has to remember where the "play" is. Usually the lead runner, but when the ball gets hit on the ground, I imagine the coaches will start screaming at him for what to do. For outfield, no one expects an Ichiro bullet to home plate. He just has to hit the cutoff man.

And, now that I think about it, a big tip for fielding is to field every ball. I don't mean actually going for every ball, but he should watch each pitch intently and, the moment the ball leaves the bat, he should watch its trajectory and start moving in that direction. If it's headed to another fielder, he can either relax or cover a base. If it's to him, he has that much better a jump on it. (The one exception would probably be first base, but that means he'll be doing almost no fielding other than covering the bag.)

I've left out tons, of course. Everyone, please fill in the holes and correct.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 8:36 AM on February 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


1) Play catch with him every day, unless you totally suck, then see #2.

2) Hire a local high school or college player to give him some pointers and encouragement. Maybe even a minor league player, if there is a local one? I paid for a one-time coaching session for my niece with a professional softball player, and we worked out a $25 fee for about an hour of her time. Then, later in your son's season, take him to one of his mentor's games (and bring friends from his team). Hopefully the mentor will remember his name, and having some recognition like that will do wonders for your son's self-esteem.

3) Take him to a batting cage with a slow[er] speed option. Let him swing a few hundred times, as many days a week as you're comfortable with. The more he can swing at each session, the more it will become second nature and robotic. You pitching to him will be too erratic for him to develop a rhythm.

4) There seems to be a proliferation of indoor baseball/softball training facilities in my area. Maybe in yours too? Possibly associated with your MLB team? Check into those for clinics, training programs, etc.

But just play catch with him, and take him to a cage, as often as it fits into your lifestyle.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:47 AM on February 12, 2008


Two tiny things I forgot:

When catching a ball, kids tend to snap or punch at it, often knocking it away. Stress soft hands, let the ball land in the mitt and let it push the mitt back a little.

When swinging, kids can sometimes let their arms extend fully, thinking it makes them stronger. It doesn't. Fully extended arms slow down the bat and sap power. The best MLB hitters keep their arms bent and their bat closer to their body when rotating around. If this means he loses the outside of the strike zone, he's probably too far from the plate.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 9:35 AM on February 12, 2008


Do all the above, but also this: Speak with your son's coach. Explain to him what you explained to us. If he's good, and many are, he'll keep an eye out for any bad interpersonal stuff, and he'll be able to give your son some extra help. Even better, volunteer to assistant-coach on your sons team. I coach and assist. coach a lot and it's not only a blast, but you get to sneak in the customized help your own kid might need.

For instance: My son was hating baseball last year because after the first game he didn't get one hit all season. By the time the last game came around we decided to make sure he got a hit. I got the key to the equipment box (asst. coach, see?), we set up the pitching machine and I got my son to take like a hundred pitches before the game. He went 3-4, and ended the season excited about next year.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:46 AM on February 12, 2008


It never hurts to build up some general strength before getting into a new sport. A couple months of sit-ups, push-ups, and chin-ups can do wonders, especially for an uncoordinated kid of 8 or 9 years old. This is also a great activity that you can do together, in the basement or at the playground. Perhaps you could even get a small medicine ball and toss it around with him - trunk rotations will help build up the strength he will need to swing confidently. Such time spent in "spring training" now will help prepare him in terms of strength, balance, coordination, power, etc for the upcoming season.

Good luck!
posted by tiburon at 10:00 AM on February 12, 2008


Good tips so far, here are mine:

If he's not very good they'll probably stick him in the outfield, so don't worry too much about drills involving grounders or fielding in the infield. Focus more on batting, fly balls, and long throws.

The best way to get good at batting is to just spend some time in the batting cages. Go to a local place that has pitching machines, or find a batting cage where you can pitch balls to him without having to go find them. Although technique is important, practice is far more important, because it's the only way to develop the hand-eye coordination necessary to hit well.

For fly balls and long throws, get a bat and a ball and have him stand some distance away. Hit high popups and let him try to catch them. After he catches the ball, have him throw it back (maybe turn a bucket on it's side and have him aim for it). Throwing is more about technique, but being able to judge fly balls is something you can only get from practice.

So, in short, practice, practice, practice!
posted by burnmp3s at 10:06 AM on February 12, 2008


Give him three things to remember total for fielding and hitting.

For example--fielding is mitt all the way to the ground for grounders, use your legs to throw and be ready for every pitch. Just have him remember those three things over and over again.

He'll be better than most.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:07 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks all for the tips and keep 'em coming. Now, if I can only get the weather here to cooperate...
posted by qldaddy at 10:21 AM on February 12, 2008


Keep your expectations low and remember that it's kids playing a game.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:33 AM on February 12, 2008


Eye on the ball. Eye on the ball. Eye on the ball. Eye on the ball.
Hitting: You have to watch the ball meet your bat.
Catching: You have to look the ball into your glove.

When it comes to throwing, it sounds like the tough part for him is going to be learning integrated movement: legs thru hips thru torso through arm. Think chopping wood, not turning a crank.
posted by dzot at 10:42 AM on February 12, 2008


For grounders, stay down on the ball!

"I can explain to your mom why you have a bloody nose, but I can't explain to your dad why you let the groundball go between your legs"
posted by tiburon at 11:41 AM on February 12, 2008


The whole "integrated movement" thing seems to be the biggest stumbling block right now. He moves like a claymation figure - one segment of a limb at a time. He's also having trouble with the concept of "follow-through". When he swings, he stops the bat as it meets the ball. I think he's concentrating so hard on making contact, that he's not grokking the concept of "swing". I guess it's all about repetition, but I don't want him repeating the wrong motions. And, I don't want to spend all of our prctice time correcting him, b/c that won't be much fun for either of us.
posted by qldaddy at 12:33 PM on February 12, 2008


Here is a drill to teach staying down on the ball. Set up two cones a few feet apart, and get a bucket of tennis balls, or whiffle balls wrapped in duct tape. Have your son play goalie with the goal of stopping the ball from getting past him, in any way possible, as you roll and throw balls at him. Do this barehanded to start. It will force him to get his hands all the way to the ground, as well as get him used to focusing in just stopping the ball. Then add the glove to the drill. This was my most effective drill when I was coaching the really young kids to catch a grounder.

For hitting, start with hitting off a tee. Major Leaguers still work out with tees. Then move up to pitched balls. Whiffle balls wrapped in duct tape make great batting practice balls because they have enough weight to actually be pitched, and they don't hurt so the kids can build confidence without worrying about getting hit. Then mix in real baseballs.

For throwing, I found it beneficial to start by teaching the kids to throw from their knees. That way you don't have to deal with the legs while you teach them to reach back and follow through.

For general catching skills, start with barehanded catch with a tennis ball. Start close to each other and work yourselves away. Catching a tennis ball barehanded naturally develops the "soft hands" mentioned above. Then add the glove. Outfield practice is a lot of fun too with tennis balls and a tennis racket for the coach to use to hit them high and far. The bounciness of the tennis ball also forces the kids to use two hands, another important skill.
posted by COD at 12:43 PM on February 12, 2008


Plenty of good suggestions here.

As SuperSquirel suggested play catch with him until your arm falls off. (I wouldn't go so far as to hire a coach though--that sounds a bit over the top for a "rookie" 9-year old. I'm sure you are up to the task.) One more simple tip on throwing--"Step and Throw" should be your mantra--Doctor Suarez covers that and other items quite well.

As you are well aware, your guy is probably starting off well behind many of the other kids. Most of the other players have likely hit off batting T's in rookie leagues as 6 or 7 yr old. Some may have batted off pitching machines as well.

The area where his inexperience will be most apparent, both to himself and to his teammates and coaches will be at the plate since he will bat at least once or even several times in a game. His short comings in the field may take some time to be exposed. He may not have to field, catch or throw a ball for games at a time.

Therefore, it would be a good idea to focus plenty of attention on hitting the ball. Pick up an inexpensive batting T and whiffle ball for your son to use with you away from practice settings. As his confidence grows, pitch underhand to him with a real ball in a soft toss drill, then you might want to progress to slow pitch batting cages.

Be careful not to pressure him to practice, practice, practice although that is what he will really need to do to catch up. Try to make it fun by spicing up the drill using creative situations. Try to be there when he wants to play/practice.

He will probably be afraid of the ball while at bat initially so have patience with him and help feel safe by pitching underhand to him to start. Remind him that he will be wearing a helmet. Demonstrate to him that slow pitched balls don't hurt very much if they hit were to hit him. Keep praising him for any effort he makes and be patient. Always try to make his practice and participation FUN.

Definitely get involved as an assistant coach or helper. I suspect he will be very happy to have you around--sort of as a security blanket--in this new and sometimes scary experience.

A great resource for youth players and coaches is Don Edlin's QC Baseball web site (http://www.qcbaseball.com) Check it out--As a new coach and new player you both should find it very helpful.

Have fun!
posted by coachjerry at 12:45 PM on February 12, 2008


If his swing stops at contact, then it's probably stopping right at the exact moment when his wrists are supposed to turn over. It's that turning over that really generates bat speed, since it adds movement to the bat beyond just the arms. It sounds like, before working in any pitched balls or even maybe balls on a T, get him to practice a good swing mechanic over and over until his bat is flying through the hitting zone and following through nicely. Once that becomes his default motion, work in contact.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 2:00 PM on February 12, 2008


-Step towards the target first with the throwing-side foot, then with the glove-side foot and keep your eyes on the target.

This sounds reversed. After playing ball from age 7 to 18, I do exactly the opposite. I step forward with my glove-side foot and then follow through with the throwing side foot. You want the throwing motion to go across the body with the hand ending over the opposite leg.

I third the recommendation to go out and buy an inexpensive tee. Buy a bunch of tennis balls (or whiffle balls) and just have your kid hit the balls off the tee. After practicing on the tee, you can then kneel perpendicular to your son and toss the balls into his strike zone (above the knees up to his chest), and have him hit them out of the air. After that, then progress to regular pitching. (or you can just skip to the pitching).

An absolute must for a basic technique in catching the ball, always, always trap the ball in the glove with the other hand. Not only does it make sure the ball stays in the glove, but you don't have to reach over to get the ball to throw it. The ball and hand are already together. So when your son catches the ball, make sure that he trap it between his glove and hand. Otherwise (good) coaches will shout, "Both hands!"

I nth the keep your eye on the ball, follow it into the glove. When throwing the ball, have your son target your chest and keep his eyes on you as he throws it.

In terms of batting, make sure your son doesn't drop his rear elbow. When he's holding the bat, try and make sure his rear elbow is parallel with the ground. Furthermore, when a batter swings, he steps forward with his front foot before swinging and then pivots on the rear foot (on the balls of his feet) as he swings. If your son can go out to hitting practice with this foot stepping and pivoting, it'll go along way towards at least impressing the coaches, if not his teammates.

Lastly, if you do buy a tee, make sure to place it a little ahead of him (perhaps in line with the toe of his front foot after the step forward). A good batter hits the ball in front of him, not even and certainly not behind.
posted by Atreides at 4:30 PM on February 12, 2008


Hiring a pro coach is over-the-top for a 9yo, but not hiring a h.s. or college player for a few bucks, or getting a minor leaguer to give him some tips. Kids often don't want to listen to their parents, even if the parent is giving completely sound advice. Hence the neutral third party, who would probably repeat everything in this thread and a youngster would take it as gospel. Coming from dad? Not so much. Maybe. I'll admit this advice is probably colored by the fact that my daughter currently thinks I'm the biggest doofus on the planet.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my undergrad days studying physical education was that kids and novices learn best by first watching an expert perform the motion the way it SHOULD be performed, and then attempting to mimic that motion with minimal verbal intervention by the instructor. In other words, the student should attempt to FEEL what good form feels like.

I sometimes tape my niece's swing and pitching motions, so that I can show her what she's doing, rather than tell her. That might be an option for your son, if you think he might be overwhelmed by verbal instructions. (And a lot of kids are not interested in the listening - they just want to DO.)

Sorry if this is all too much for what you're trying to do - yakking about kids and sports is one of my favorite pastimes...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:37 PM on February 12, 2008


Coach, Doctor, Super, et al, thanks so much for all your help! Not too info much at all. I always believe that more info is better.

I think I'm going to try to give him one overall thought (eye on the ball) to keep in mind and three little ideas for each major action (fielding, throwing, and hitting). Weather looks pretty crappy here for the next week or so, but I'm going to see if I can come up with some indoor throwing games until we can get outside.

Thanks again for all your help here. My goal here is try and make this an enjoyable experience for him and I think you've given me some great ideas for doing that.

Oh, and if I can impose just a bit more, any sugeestions for what size bat I should get?
(9 YO, 4'9", 94#s) And, the price range on bats is crazy! Is there really a big jump in quality/performance (considering skill level of hitter)?
posted by qldaddy at 6:11 PM on February 12, 2008


When I was that age, I think I used something in the 26/27 inch range, give or take a couple inches on the shorter side. Here's a link offering a chart for age and length, and about baseball bats in general.
posted by Atreides at 6:35 PM on February 12, 2008


@ Atreides

I see what you're saying, but we're talking about two different parts of the throwing process. Follow through is in fact with the throwing-side foot. I was talking about the two steps prior to throwing, where you step and turn out with the throw foot, lead with the glove foot, then follow through with the throw foot, which I left out because it tends to happen naturally when you really uncork one.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 7:25 PM on February 12, 2008


A way to size a bat is to have him hold from the end, straight out at a 90 degree angle from his body, with his arm fully extended. If he can hold it like that easily for 3 seconds the bat should be fine.
posted by COD at 12:29 PM on February 14, 2008


Doctor Suarez, I gotcha. The lack of arm placement mentioning threw me off on what you were describing, hence the mix up.
posted by Atreides at 3:14 PM on February 14, 2008


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