It’s hard to blame a player for developing a fear of getting hit by a baseball. After all, he’s trying to hit a spherical object that often looks like the size of a marble from a pitcher who’s throwing as hard as he can.
The last thing you want is to get hit by that hard, round ball, even if it barely grazes a forearm. When hit (and almost every hitter will at some point), that anxiety can become traumatizing for some players. It’s a challenge coaches can face at a variety of levels.
In over 30 years as head coach at Coffman High School in Dublin, Ohio, Tim Saunders has occasionally encountered such a player.
“This is a tough (concept) to teach,” Saunders said. “As a coach, you talk about it and let your players know that any way you can get on base is a plus. In the end, it is one of the toughest things to teach a player to do on a regular basis.”
Don Edlin, who has coached baseball from tee ball through high school for over 18 years, says such fear is not uncommon, particularly since young pitchers tend to throw hard with little or no control. The younger the hitter, the more likely they will freeze when a pitch is thrown.
“Often, they try to get away from the ball by backing away,” Edlin stated in a blog post on Quality Coaching for Baseball, an online resource he started back in 2000. “This puts them in a position to get hit in the side or front of the body or possibly the face. Once a hitter has been hit a couple of times, it can be a major task for them to overcome those painful experiences.”
The good news is that, with a bit of patience and encouragement, coaches can help most players at any age level learn to minimize their fears at the plate. According to Joey Myers, youth coach and founder of Hitting Perform Lab, players and coaches need to understand that fear will never completely go away.
“Fear is always there, or else we’d all just walk in front of oncoming trains,” Myers said in a video that offers specific drills on how hitters can defend themselves in the batter’s box, using a peer-to-peer approach. “We have to shrink fear down and push it to the corner where it belongs.”
Saunders has his players practice rolling with a pitch as part of their stance and stride, and not jumping back out of the way of an inside pitch. Edlin teaches that stepping “inside the bucket” actually exposes the front of a batter’s body and face to a pitched ball. He advises having a coach or parent start out about 10 to 15 feet from a player, and softly toss a tennis ball or soft incrediball over the plate, without having the hitter swing.
As the drill continues, move the ball inside gradually, and when the hitter believes he’s about to be hit, he should turn his body away from the pitch. Coaches should teach hitters to turn and place the end of the bat directly on the ground behind them, forcing them to turn away and duck down.
But even the best techniques don’t keep some players from leaving the game altogether because of the fear of getting hit. Saunders remembers one such player who played high level travel ball as a middle schooler, but decided not to continue playing in high school. When Saunders approached him and asked why, the player replied, “coach, I got hit four times last summer at the plate. I am scared to death to get in the batter’s box.”
Ironically, that player switched to football, starring as a defensive back in college before playing five seasons in the NFL. Saunders asked him some years later how it was that he could take and dish out hits in football, yet be afraid of a pitched baseball.
“He told me, “coach, I am still afraid to step to the plate, and I will never do that again, and I do not regret not playing high school baseball”,” Saunders recalled. “That told me right then that once the fear has set in, no matter what you do, it may not be changeable for that individual.”
Though this was the case for one specific player, it isn’t the case across the board. Coaches have a chance in most situations to help a player no longer fear the possibility of being hit by a pitch. Like many skills in baseball and life, it gets better with experience.
From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr
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