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For most of the winter months here in Rhode Island, the weather is not ideal for practicing baseball skills outdoors. The fields are covered in snow and/or the ground is too saturated to play on. Backyards are ideal for playing catch when the weather cooperates. Many baseball players and Rhode Island baseball organizations turn to indoor training facilities to work on baseball skills. This was the case for my North Kingstown/Wickford Little League players.
The YMCA of Greater Providence and North Kingstown/Wickford Little League developed an indoor baseball program this February and March. The “Winter Workouts at the Y” program took place in one of the Y’s aerobic studios at North Kingstown’s West Bay YMCA on Post Road. One of the conditions the Y and NKW agreed on was no “real” baseballs. We were only to use the leagues Tee Ball baseballs, which have a rubber core and bounce sort of like a tennis ball. They have the look and feel of the baseball, with the leather coating and stitches, so these Tee Ball baseballs were ideal for this winter workout program indoors.
I began to wonder what else I could incorporate into the program that would be safe for the room. The obvious choice was tennis balls. I picked up a bag of tennis balls from a local sporting goods store for about 92¢ a ball. Tennis balls are much softer than baseballs, yet mirror the shape of an actual baseball. Tennis balls are slighter smaller than real baseballs, but not by much. And to the youth baseball player ages 5 to 9 with smaller hands, the difference is almost undetectable. Tennis balls are safe to use with any age group, any ability level, and help young players overcome the fear of getting hurt by a baseball. I stress “HELP” because some never get over the fear of getting hurt by a baseball. But tennis balls really get young players close to that reality. If a player experiences a tennis ball bouncing off their leg or their arm or their chest and doesn’t feel pain or get hurt, in all likelihood you can train them to be less afraid of a real baseball.
Here are some of the drills I effectively used tennis balls for this winter. And some of these can be transferred to practices outside, in your driveway, in your back yard, or wherever you have space to practice.
- Ground balls – I would have the fielder start on one side of the court without his glove. I would roll the tennis ball into the middle of the court. The player would shuffle his feet and move into position to allow the tennis ball to travel through their legs. After repeating this a few times, I would then bounce the tennis ball and have the fielder stop it with their body. Again, shuffling over to get into a good fielding position, centered in front of the tennis ball. Then, I would instruct the fielder to pickup his glove and I would roll the tennis ball, then bounce the tennis ball for them to field it with their glove. Last, I would switch from the tennis ball to the Tee Ball and repeat the drills with the “real” baseball.
- Fly balls – I would hand each player a tennis ball and give them a section of the room. Like the fielding exercise, I would have them start with their gloves off. First, I would have them bounce the ball straight down and have them catch it, emphasizing catching it shoulder/head high, palms up with the opposite hand coming in to secure the tennis ball. Then, I would have them toss the ball up to themselves. Again, emphasizing proper catching technique. Then, I would instruct the fielder to the middle of the room and I would bounce the ball up high for them to catch. After a few sets, I would then toss the ball in the air for the fielder to catch in the air. Finally, I would have the player put their glove on. I would bounce the tennis ball first, then toss it in the air. Again, emphasizing proper catching technique with the glove pitched slightly back, shoulder/head high, and the fielder’s throwing hand to secure the ball in the glove. Then, I would put the tennis balls down and use the “real” baseballs/Tee Ball baseballs.
- Bounce the tennis ball, hit it. Sounds simple right? Just bounce a tennis ball and crush it 450 feet? Hitting is about timing – moving a bat from your shoulders to the spot a ball is traveling to. How hard do you swing? Where in the travel of a ball is the most ideal to hit it? Batting practice takes place from roughly age 5 or 6 until you quit baseball. Hitting takes practice, just like geometry or learning a language or riding a bike. If you have a tennis ball and a yard or a driveway, you can practice hitting. I would have my player stand in a designated spot in the middle of the room I would have the player get into his batting stance, as if I were going to pitch to him. Then, I would drop a tennis ball in front of him (from the side) and ask him to hit it. Some would connect, some would pop it into the ceiling, some would drive it into the wall. Hitting a tennis ball that bounces in front of you requires some patience because your mind says “this is easy, I can crush this.” But I worked with my hitters on patience and balance and good fundamentals with the tennis ball drop. And it encourages hand eye coordination, which is fundamental in the art of hitting. If you are alone, hold the bat with one hand, toss the tennis ball up in the air, grab the bat with the other hand, let the ball bounce once, then hit it.
A 92¢ investment helped make a huge difference in the skill level of these players. Each week, I saw considerable improvement in fielding and hitting ability. And every week, I used less of the tennis balls and more of the “real” baseballs in the fielding drills. My hope is that these indoor skills translate into better baseball play once the players get outside. Tennis balls are safe, inexpensive, and easy to use for youth baseball skill development.