Fighting fear with a healthy dose of batting practice

    A father discovers the reasons behind his 10-year-old son’s fears at bat and coaches him through with love and patience and a few tough pitches. A little practice can be as good for the pitcher as for the hitter.

    When baseball practice started for our 10-year-old son, all the players showed some atrophy from a long, snowy winter. Instead of working their arms in snowball fights, they said they practiced playing Wii. It showed, especially on our son, who did not regain his swing from the previous year, when his coach proclaimed him “Mr. June” for his performance in the playoffs.

    As the season started, he approached the batter’s box with increasing trepidation as he watched his teammates win “tough guy” awards for battling away tears when they were hit by a pitch. He moved farther out of the batter’s box. He shuffled his feet nervously. He swung at pitches that bounced in front of home plate. He got played defense with less enthusiasm. He loved the game, and he seemed determined to get a hit, but as he got more determined, he got more anxious; he became desperate.

    As first base coach, I would cheer him on, crediting him for a nice swing and signaling that he missed the ball by a fraction of an inch.  I wanted to encourage him, and I certainly did not want him to see how much pain I felt for him. Perhaps he sensed it. I told him every night how proud I was of him. In our post-game analysis, we talked about his good plays. I know he wanted to do well, but I know any little boy wants to please his father, too. When he struck out, he looked up at me first. I smiled and clapped for him; inside, I wept for him while I smiled.

    After three hitless games, he asked me to give him additional batting practice.

    We trudged to the field with bat, balls, and mitts. I prepared with ibuprofen. I was committed to pitching as long as he needed me to throw so that he could develop his confidence.

    I first asked him to try some bunts to re-establish his ability to watch the ball hit the bat. I pitched high and low. He moved the bat with the pitch and consistently put the bat on the ball. I asked him to swing — at everything. I wanted him to concentrate.  

    He hit everything I threw. He reached up, out, and down. He showed impressive bat control. He was having fun. He was relaxed, swinging comfortably and confidently. He was different without his uniform.

    Then I threw a pitch hard and inside.

    He jumped back alertly and looked at me with surprise. He had trusted my pitching and felt comfortable because he knew he would be safe with my pitching. I would never hurt him.

    He had never been hit by a pitch, but he had seen plenty of kids get hit by pitches. As first base coach, I have consoled many a base runner after a ball has hit them in the back, hand, or leg. Quickly, they shake it off and steal second.

    Our son only saw the wincing, the rubbing, and the tears. His batting woes stemmed from his fear of getting hit. From the pitcher’s mound, I knew what he needed to overcome his fear.

    I continued pitching, debating whether I would do more harm than good if I were to throw at him deliberately. I lost faith in my ability to throw accurately. I did not want him to lose faith in my commitment to protect him.

    I debated as I pitched. I threw outside and then came in close. Each time, he jumped back and glared. The inside pitches set him back each time. He had trouble getting his rhythm. He shuffled his feet as the ball approached the plate.

    I did not want him to be afraid of the ball, especially at 10, when his teammates would notice. I had played baseball at this age and remember the teasing that went on beyond the notice of the coaches. No parent wants his child to be the victim of any verbal abuse.

    No parent wants to lose his child’s trust.

    I pitched. I analyzed, rationalized, and pitched more. I recognize now that the minute I gave my pitching location any thought at all, I would not hit him. Instead, I gave him a healthy dose of batting practice, while I gave myself another bout of introspective parenting.

    Batting practice that night did us both good. Our son had two hits in three at bats in his next game. I went two for three in fatherhood: I retained his trust, spent enjoyable time with him, but sacrificed brain function and anguish over something seemingly trivial.

    Perhaps it was not trivial. The greatest responsibility and challenge of parenthood is thinking through the details of your child’s life, knowing when to be involved and when (and what) they need to learn on their own. The balance of guiding them and liberating them, like a batting average, fluctuates constantly. We prepare as best we can, swing at the best pitches, and handle the hard, inside pitches the best we can.

    Jeff Cromarty, the chief operating officer at Philadelphia University, pitches batting practice for his two sons in Lambertville, N.J.

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