I wanna be I wanna be like Mike...

When I was a boy/young man, there were very few things more important to me in this world than sports.  Baseball cards were a NEED every time we would go to the store from about age 9 until 12. I also can't remember a time when I didn't have the urge to throw a ball, or dribble it, or toss it up in the air and catch it, or tap it off my leg, Even to this day if I'm laying on the couch and a tennis ball or balloon or anything of the sort is sitting right there I'll find myself mindlessly tossing it up in the air and catching it over and over. It's almost like second nature.

I think it was because of that second nature, and drive to perfect it, that my hand eye coordination and muscle control developed in the way it did. Nobody had to teach me to throw or catch, because I had done it myself over countless repetitions for no particular reason other than I couldn't sit still and I had found this great way to focus the energy without getting myself into trouble and to me it was fun!  I remember standing in the backyard for hour upon hour tossing a baseball up into a tree and trying to catch it as it bounced like a plinko chip down the branches. I would run and dive and get dirty, but also, quite unwittingly, I was training myself for the most difficult of scenarios that wouldn't actually rear its head on a baseball field, short of the ball hitting off a bird or something. 

So, this week when my oldest son came to me and said that he wanted to try out for the traveling baseball team it got me to thinking about the best way to help him. You see, neither of my kids, so far, just naturally gravitated toward an organized sport like baseball, basketball, football, soccer etc. They show a little interest in everything, but not like it was with me, or how I see some of the students at school, and that's fine. I want them to do what they are interested in. In the last few months, though, my oldest has shown a particular interest in baseball and football. In baseball, of course, his main interest has been hitting, and over the summer he has become a pretty decent hitter. I don't think we're on a Mike Trout path just yet, but his swing has grown by leaps and bounds and when he gets hot produces some line drives that keep me on my toes. I've actually started throwing the ball in a full motion, rather than just short arming them up there, which has been pretty cool, because, as I've mentioned, I like playing ball.

This week, though, when he said he wanted to try out for a traveling team, I told him that, since he's shown interest, he could, although he's going to have to learn to throw and catch. He didn't complain and seemed willing, so that's what we've been working on.

The problem is, is that I don't think I've ever taught someone to throw or catch. Not really anyway. I've worked with plenty of kids at the junior high to high school level but by then you're kind of past the real rudimentary phases of the art of catching. My oldest is not past that phase. He put that glove on his hand, I threw the ball at him, and he missed A LOT. I'd say somewhere around 90% didn't even touch his glove. I tried different speeds and distances and showed him what I used to do when I was a kid, but it just didn't seem like that natural drive or ability was there. Then I noticed something yesterday when we were playing catch, and I don't know how I missed it. 

I must have stressed to him a thousand times that he needed to follow the ball all the way in and it would just land in his glove and all he had to do was squeeze it, and the only way to get better is to practice, but he seemed to have this mental block about stabbing at the ball at the last second if it was anywhere but right where his glove started. I tried a bunch of different ways and told him that he was closing his eyes, and sometimes flinching, which I thought was what was making him miss. I told him not to be afraid of the ball. It doesn't even hurt that bad if it hits you. Then I noticed he had his glove arm elbow anchored against the side of his body, whereas I naturally hold the glove away from my body a little bit, making it easier to adjust to the flight path of the ball. So, I got him to move his elbow, freeing up his arm, and VIOLA!  He went from catching about 10% of the throws to 80%. That simple mechanical adjustment, which I'm guessing I figured out on my own through countless repetition while playing at a young age essentially fixed the problem. Don't get me wrong, he's no Ozzie Smith just yet, but we both felt pretty good about the giant leap in success.

What was neat, though, was seeing his demeanor change. I'm a pretty patient guy, and I try my hardest not to get frustrated, but watching him chase hundreds of balls that sailed past him without so much as him getting a glove on them had both of us feeling a bit dejected. The good part was that we got to work on running everywhere we go when we're at practice, but that was the only bright spot. Anyway, he and I both went from frustration to joy as he caught ball after ball, racking up multiple streaks of ten catches in a row. Then I realized something.

We were having fun! I need to think more like a kid and less like a parent/old guy/coach. I thought this was something I was already doing since I wasn't scolding him, or punishing him for doing it wrong or anything like that. BUT I WASN'T. 

I was trying to fix a simple problem through a bunch of non-simple steps based on repetitive practice without the proper evaluation time. That sounds boring whether you read it or say it aloud.

So, how do I fix that?

Duh. How did I get past all of those hurdles when I was a kid? Did I watch video of myself and discuss body mechanics and seek out an expert in kinesiology? Nope, I did it the old fashioned way. By playing. 

If he really wants to get better we'll just keep playing. At some point the mechanics involved will become very important, but right now we just need to play, have fun, and keep doing it. Just like I eventually noticed he needed to get his elbow away from his body, I'll notice things that can help him throw a little better, and instead of painful repetition that leads to dejection (which sometimes baseball can be, especially when you get to higher levels) I'll notice something, incorporate it into the play, and then it becomes even more fun. 

How is it possible that I forgot this? I've always said that part of what made me good at baseball was my drive to be good at basketball. I would never have just run for miles and miles and done tons of core workouts and all that blah blah blah stuff to be good at baseball. That stuff is boring. Playing is fun. Although it felt like I had naturally developed my arm strength, core strength, and stamina, I really had just played, a lot, at a lot of different things. I've known that for as long as I can remember and can hardly believe it somehow left my mind. 

Recently a younger cousin of mine reminded me of a story my father told him once. He had asked my dad how I had learned to dunk a basketball. My dad had replied with a story about how I would lower my hoop to 7 feet and dunk and dunk until pretty soon I could move it up to 8 feet and dunk and dunk and then 9 feet/dunk and dunk, until finally, when I was 16 I got the hoop up to 10 feet and would dunk and dunk. The point of my father's story was to illustrate setting goals, achieving them, and then setting new goals.

What's funny, though, is that I remember it a little differently. I think that my goal may have been to eventually dunk on a ten foot hoop, but what drove me every day to keep going was my desire to do things the way the guys in the NBA dunk contest did it. The reason I started the hoop at 7 feet, 8 feet, etc. was that I could emulate a windmill, or a reverse, or a 360 at those levels and I would have these imaginary dunk contests in my brain, complete with Marv Albert's voice. (I don't know if Marv even called the dunk contests, his is just the voice I put together with NBA basketball back then.) So, at some point I would get good enough to move up a level and that's what I would do. Was a trying to learn to dunk on a 10 foot hoop? Nope. I was trying to beat Michael Jordan in an imaginary dunk contest. I was playing

Anyway, I never got to a Jordanesque level, but through using my imagination and playing I eventually got to the point I could dunk pretty darn well on a ten foot hoop. It didn't hurt that the court at my house was in the sand either. When I would get in the gym it felt like someone had taken a fifty pound weight off my legs. 

So, thinking about all of this kind of makes sense with my oldest son too. Why does he like hitting over playing catch? Because he learned to do it well first. Well, that, and hitting is pretty fun, and it is naturally a game, trying to hit the ball harder and farther each time, although I always liked pitching b/c I liked getting my friends out and you're in on every play, and the success rate is a lot higher. Then another thing struck me. Hot box can be a great teacher. If you can't throw or catch you can't get anyone out, and then you don't get to run. My kids love tag, I can guarantee they'll like hotbox. What a great motivator.

So, the lesson I learned this week was to stop thinking like an old guy and get into the mind of a kid, which shouldn't be that hard for me. As long as we're hustling and having a good time the mechanics will come around, and if they don't, who cares. We'll keep playing and getting better and when tryout time comes we'll do our best. If our best isn't good enough yet, then we'll just keep playing. Yeah, whether you're 8 or 36, playing is a lot more fun than boring old practice. Duh.

So, that's the blog for this week. I know it's a day late again, but it couldn't be helped. There aren't enough hours in the day and it turns out I do actually need some sleep. I'm contemplating moving the blog schedule to a bi-weekly thing, but I'll address that in the future. If you haven't checked it out yet, Rex Chase is on sale for $2.99 on Amazon and The Sentinel is ready for consumption. Sign up for my newsletter if you want updates sent directly to your email. Hope you all are doing well!

Posted on October 9, 2014 .