If there’s one thing that’s struck and confused me in watching and coaching Little Leaguers, it has to be the sequence and pace at which they learn different skills. Because they often don’t seem to come in logical order. I’ll give you an example…most kids can hit a ball before they can throw a ball accurately. That always surprised me. As they say, hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely is probably the hardest thing in sports. Yet kids seem to pick that up faster than, what I would think, would be easier tasks.
Let’s take playing the outfield. How many kids do you see backpedaling on fly balls? My guess is, a LOT. Now, it may not seem like much, but that one simple skill, of learning how to chase down fly balls correctly, especially those hit over your head, without resorting to backpedaling, is one of the key skills your son or daughter will learn as they get older. So in this edition of “GenerationBasball’s Deep Dive Thursday,” we’re going to take a look at how to teach the RIGHT way to play the outfield. And we won’t just cover the basics, we’ll take a “deep dive” into some physics to explain why learning proper form in the outfield is crucial to a young player’s development.
Why Outfielders Backpedal
Here’s a simple answer…because they don’t know any better and in a sense it comes naturally. Have you ever heard the saying that the hardest ball to field is the one hit right at you? Turns out, there’s some science behind it. We’re actually better at tracking objects when we’re moving than when we’re standing still. There’s a really fascinating article from LiveScience that explains why, and how it translates to fielding in baseball here — http://www.livescience.com/3445-baseball-players-catch-fly-balls.html.
From the article:
“We have found that running paths are largely consistent with those observed experimentally,” Kistemaker told LiveScience. “Largely, and not completely, because the start of fielders is somewhat strange: They tend to step forward first, irrespective of the fact that they have run either forward or backwards to catch that fly ball.”
The research is detailed this month in the journal Human Movement Science.
Will those first few steps forward doom the Little Leaguer to years of fly ball nightmares? Actually, it might be our brain’s method of improving its viewpoint.
“For a fielder, making a step is a way of changing the magnitude of the optical acceleration, while preserving its informative value,” Kistemaker clarified. “A faster rise of the optical acceleration above the detection threshold may outweigh a possible initial step in the wrong direction. Making an initial step forwards is not only easier than making an initial step backwards, but might also be a better choice.”
So, if you’re now coaching Little Leaguers, be patient. Their brains may still be learning the math.
Pretty cool, huh? But now here’s the thing…it still doesn’t explain why younger players backpedal instead of turning, getting on their horse, and chasing down a ball over their head. That skill must be taught. And the sooner the better.
How to Teach the Proper Way to Track Down a Ball in the Outfield
I remember one of the first baseball camps I went to. It was a summer camp where we spent all day playing and practicing different skills…some of which we hadn’t really learned yet. One was how to go back on a fly ball. The coaches loaded up a pitching machine, pointed it over our heads, and let fly. After we failed to get to a few, he taught us lessons like these:
And I’ll tell you, the difference was night and day! It still makes me cringe watching kids backpedal instead of turn and sprint. I think part of it is that for a brief second you may lose sight of the ball. And that can be scary. But once they learn and practice the RIGHT way, they’ll be hooked on how effective it is. And pretty soon they’ll be chasing down balls like a golden retriever. Now get out there and shag some flies!