Practice may not make perfect, but it sure helps youths improve

ASK CAL

May 28, 2006|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

I play under-14 baseball and I tend to boot ground balls, and when I do get them I don't always make the best throws. Any advice?

Alex Prose, Northville, Mich.

DEAR ALEX / / Most young players simply don't get enough repetitions in practice. Big league players take a certain amount of ground balls and fly balls every day. If you can find 15 to 20 minutes every day to take ground balls on a field, starting from a closer distance with the coach rolling the ball to help tracking and then moving back as you become more comfortable with the proper mechanics, that should be a good start. Make sure to use the proper technique when fielding ground balls: create a wide base with your feet for stability and get your butt down, which will force your head to stay up and force your hands out in front of your body. Relax your wrist so that the ball can roll into the glove easily and catch the ball out in front.

After you become more comfortable fielding, you can practice throwing properly. After you catch a ball you should find your balance, generate momentum toward the target by shuffling your feet, point your front shoulder toward your target, release the ball and then follow it by taking several steps toward the target after letting it go. Do this from a fielding position first without actually catching the ball. Then, when you are having success fielding and throwing, connect the two: catch the ball using the proper approach, get into an athletic position with the knees still slightly bent, shuffle, release and follow.

It's that simple. Do this over and over every day in practice until it becomes second nature.

We are located in a hotbed for lacrosse, and many of the most talented young athletes don't play baseball. Those who elect to play baseball are trained through recreation programs from age 5 or 6. By age 9 or 10, many have skills that are well-developed. They form a potentially strong nucleus for older-age group play. Regrettably, the most talented boys opt for metro baseball programs, or travel programs that don't require in-house participation as a prerequisite. The result is dwindling registration numbers and a lessened skill set in the 11-through-15-year-old age groups. Without the more talented boys sprinkled in, the teams are weak and the game play is subpar. Two or three swings a night and one ground ball just doesn't cut it. I believe more time should be spent practicing. Practice twice per week and play once, even if just for the first half of the season. Would you endorse this approach to improving play among the kids who stick with the recreation leagues?

Don Bowden, Cockeysville

DEAR DON / / For many reasons, participation in recreational leagues is falling. There definitely are fewer kids playing and the talent levels are becoming more diverse, with players who are just learning the game mixed in with more talented and experienced players. That's why "travel" teams started to form, because those parents and coaches placed a value on placing the better players together on one team and letting them play against similar teams from other areas. Unfortunately, this has taken players away from the local rec programs.

One idea that we have been tossing around is attempting to get recreational programs in certain areas to merge to give them more numbers and more options in hopes of better matching players of similar skill levels. The hurdle to accomplishing that type of merger is that many of the rec leagues like having control over their own rules and philosophies. However, without sufficient numbers we are not properly serving kids of all talent levels.

When it comes to practice vs. games, certainly you learn more in practice and get an opportunity to test what you've learned in games. Rick Wulf, a noted sports psychologist who collaborated on my recent book, Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way, recommends a 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio. What you mentioned amounts to a 2-to-1 ratio. I would support either. The important thing is for the leagues to start to value practice more, allowing games to become the testing ground for what is accomplished during practice time.

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Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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