It has always amazed me how tee ball coaches approach teaching their players the skill of catching fly balls. They will have their players, ages five and six, take turns while coaches will either hit or throw soft covered balls to them. And of course it is inevitable that one or more kids will get hit in the head or face. Even getting hit with these soft covered baseballs can hurt, and worse can leave an emotional scar and negativity towards baseball. I have seen kids get hit in the face at this young age and refuse to step foot on a baseball field again. As coaches and parents, it is understandable that we are anxious to get our players to catch fly balls as soon as possible. Sometimes our impatience as coaches can turn youngsters away from baseball instead of leading them back enthusiastically for the next practice. Leagues need to instruct their coaches to take a basic fundamental approach when teaching to catch fly balls. Whether you are teaching the most competitive high school infield the 6-4-3 double play or five and six year-olds how to catch fly balls, leagues need to follow what I call the “Progression Method.”
There is no set age for when young players begin to feel comfortable catching pop ups. Many of the really young players afraid of getting hit will camp under a pop up very apprehensively. There are numerous drills a coach or parent can practice with their players. Some drills will work for some athletes and not for others. One of the first things a dad or coach will do to teach kids to catch is toss a ball underhand to them. Often times, young players will open their glove up with their fingers down and palm up when catching a pop up. I think this is the wrong approach. When the glove is above the waist, which is where it should be when positioning oneself to catch a popup, players should be taught to catch the ball with their fingers pointing toward the sky, not toward the ground as if catching a ground ball.
One of the first drills I have my young players perform is called “Blocking” and is one without the use of their gloves. I take the softest ball I can find. It can be a Nerf ball, sponge ball, Wiffle ball, or even a bean bag. I toss the ball or object to the player and he has to just block the ball with his open hand, using his glove hand. I make sure the ball is thrown above the player’s waist for most of the repetitions so his fingers are up. When doing this drill, it is important to go from one side of the player’s body to the other. This way the player is getting used to his hand going in front of his line of sight, which is tough for some youngsters. This is what experts would call a very “low skill” drill, but one that is a great place to start with for five and six year-olds because of the guaranteed success the players will have.
When coaches move from practicing catching a ball in close proximity to the more distant fly balls, one of the first drills I do is hit a soft covered ball off a paddle or racquet. In this drill I have the players use their gloves, but I have them use their gloves a special way. I explain to the kids that I only want them to make contact with the soft covered ball and any part of their glove. I do not want any kids catching the ball. Telling them not to catch the ball will do two things. First, you are making the drill uniform, with the goal attainable for everyone on the team. Second, the weaker kids will not feel bad if everyone catches the fly while he cannot. And lastly, you want the really young kids to experience as much success as possible. This success will lead to more confidence when a hard ball is eventually used.
As with all drills the coach must demonstrate how he wants the drill done. Another excellent technique I have used is with one of those Velcro balls and Velcro paddles for the young kids, and they love it. I will first throw up the Velcro ball by hand and they take turns catching it. My goal is to progress from throwing the ball in close to further out as the participants become more comfortable. After one or two turns, I will increase the throwing distance and then use a paddle to hit the Velcro ball. This works great and is another great confidence builder. The success experienced from many repetitions will help immensely when catching a hard ball, which is the ultimate goal. Using the Velcro ball and paddle is also great during indoor practices. Wiffle balls and tennis balls are also good to practice with. The “Progression Method” is the key. You can even set up competitions. Even young players love contests and competitions. Coaches and parents will notice the great differential in ability at this young age and may have to split into groups by ability. Use of assistant coaches and parents who normally watch on the sidelines will be extremely helpful. Coaches must remind parents that young players advance their skills differently. I have seen parents upset when other young kids can do a task theirs can’t. A lot of times in tee ball, coaches have to coach the parents as well as the players. Some players will not get the skill of catching a fly ball until they are nine or ten. Some will never get it. What we have to do is give young players the best opportunity to learn the skill.
The key to teaching young players to catch fly balls is to do it by progression. Having them dive into the deep end with no experience might open up the possibility for an injury while never extinguishing their fear of the ball. Successful repetitions will lead to confidence and give them the best odds of mastering this skill.
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Marty Schupak coached youth baseball for 25 years. He is the President of T-Ball America and is the author of 11 books and the creator of 26 instructional videos including the most popular baseball instructional video in the world: