DEAR CAL -- I'm the mother of a 13-year-old boy who is a natural in baseball. He played in recreation leagues from T-ball through 11 years old. He developed a fear of the ball and kept backing out of the batter's box. Although he never was hit, he hit some batters while he was a pitcher and it scared him so badly that he doesn't want to play in a league again.
Every time there's a story about someone getting hurt by the baseball he reminds us that is why he doesn't play on a team. We took him to a baseball academy and he played one more season but kept backing out of the batter's box. All of his uncles, who play ball, say he is a natural and he plays daily at home in our big yard. How can we help him to play the sport that he loves and not be afraid of it?
Dana Lott, New Park, Pa.
DEAR DANA -- I have addressed this issue before, but feel like it's important to discuss again since fear is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to teaching kids how to hit. There's no dancing around the fact that baseballs are hard and that it does hurt to get hit by one - especially one traveling at a high rate of speed. It doesn't do any good to attempt to convince young players otherwise because, as you said, the evidence is there for them to see every time one of their teammates or a professional playing on TV gets hit with a pitch.
The key, just like with any other baseball skill, is to help them build confidence - in this case in their ability to get out of the way of the ball. I had the same problem with my boy when he was younger, so what I did was ask him if he liked to play dodge ball in school. When he said that he did, I followed up by asking him if he was good at it. Again, he said yes. That led me to the important question: If you are so good at dodge ball, what makes you think you can't get out of the way of a baseball?
Then, I went out and proved it to him. I had him stand in the batter's box while I tried to hit him with soft, foam rubber balls. At first I tossed the balls lightly. Gradually, I increased the velocity and made the pitches more difficult to avoid. He got out of the way every time. Then I reminded him that the balls I was throwing were the same size as baseballs and that most of the kids he would be facing in games would be throwing from farther away than I was.
I was simply trying to find a creative way to help Ryan overcome his fear, but what I discovered was a fun, safe drill to help players build confidence in their ability to get out of the way of errant pitches. Because the balls are safe, even if a kid does get hit, it won't hurt. Players will learn that it really is pretty easy to avoid inside pitches and will develop ways to get out of the way of pitches in almost every location. As they get older you can even teach them the best way to move to minimize the damage when it is inevitable that they will get hit.
Try this with your son first and then with his team. Find out who is your team's dodge ball "champion" and help the players overcome their fear at the same time.
DEAR CAL -- My son broke his forearm playing baseball this summer. It's not a serious break, but he's still wearing a cast and will be for a few more weeks. He's now getting ready for soccer season and wants to start practice while he's still wearing the arm cast. Is it OK for him to do this?
Mohan Rao, Columbus, Ohio
DEAR MOHAN -- Your question is one that is more suited for a medical professional than for me. Although I've been around numerous athletic-related injuries and even experienced a few myself, I am not qualified - even if I had more information about the situation - to make a determination about whether your son has recovered enough to participate in soccer practice.
My first take on the situation is that his doctor placed a cast on his arm and told him that he probably needs to let the arm heal for a certain number of weeks for a reason. That information, coming from a trained medical expert, should be respected.
If that cast has not been removed, it's a pretty good indicator to me that there is some risk involved in any activity that might include physical contact. Even when the cast comes off, a period of rehabilitation to build strength in the injured arm will be necessary to help your son return it to full functionality as well as to prevent further injury.
Sometimes, I think as parents we are overzealous in our desire to see our injured children return to action. There is a fear that he or she might fall behind and lose playing time, which might hinder his or her long-term development.
Kids bounce back quickly and learn quickly. Almost every athlete faces situations where he or she is slowed by injury and has to take time off. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back in order to return to full strength with a low risk of aggravating the injury and the best chance of continuing to improve athletically.
If it truly is your son who is driven by this desire to practice with his cast on, I would recommend that he visit the orthopedist who initially handled the injury to discuss the situation. I'm sure at the least there are footwork drills your son can participate in that will keep his skills sharp and not risk injury as well as cardiovascular training that will allow him to literally hit the ground running when he returns to full action.
Who knows? Maybe he will be allowed to play, but please, when you make the visit, prepare your son - and yourself - for the distinct possibility that he won't be cleared for full participation. Your boy is not a professional athlete and has many years left to grow as a player and enjoy full participation in the sport. There's no reason to risk that for a few extra weeks of practice time now.
Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.