Some parents come from a place of supporting their kid’s biggest passion in life. Others come from a place of wanting their kid to be the best they can be at whatever they do. Others may wish for their kid to have more baseball success than they had. Regardless of where you’re coming from, you’re not alone if you want to give your kid every chance to realize his or her potential.
I’ve observed hundreds of kids from the age of 2 to 10 being introduced to baseball. I’ve learned that how you get started playing baseball can have a big impact, perhaps more than what is possible once your kid has some experience.
In this article I don’t discuss mechanics or getting formal lessons. I discuss what you can do when your kid is just getting started that will be most helpful for the long run. Some of my advice will be conventional wisdom or common sense. Some of it will surprise you. Most of it will be based on evidence backed by data or scientific studies.
Praise Effort, not Results
It is easy to get excited about results. Hitting the ball over the fence or making a diving catch are times when you’ll naturally get excited and want to say, “Great hit!,” or “Great catch,” or “You’re really good at baseball.”
Specifically, don’t convey the message that your kid is talented, and that results are all that matter.
What you want to praise is effort. If your kid just made a great diving catch after having practiced diving catches for a few months, then a way to praise effort might be “Wow it’s great to see all that practice paying off. Nice catch!”
Whether as parent or as coach, the most critical moment to reinforce the message that effort is more important than results is when a particular effort does not yield the desired result. Examples:
- He hustles to first base as fast as possible after a hit. He’s out by a foot. Heap praise for effort, and for what that effort will mean on average in the long run.
- She moves at maximum speed and dives but barely misses the ball. Heap praise for the effort.
- He makes a difficult stop at shortstop but then throws over the first baseman’s head. Praise the great effort to make that stop.
The scientific literature overwhelmingly finds that praising effort over results leads to many long-term benefits. It helps kids learn to develop resilience, work hard, and seek challenges, all while learning with an appropriate mindset. You can read many stories of extremely talented baseball players who stall out, while being passed up by harder working peers with less talent. In many cases, the root cause can be traced to how they were praised as children.
Baseball is a game of repetition. Like any other field, there is some talent involved, but as a kid matures into a teenager and finally an adult, having the resilience to practice and overcome failure and hardship begins to matter as much if not more than talent. I’ve found that by the age of 11, many players hustle less than they used to. The coach can reteach hustle, but it’s a lot of work. I suspect that the main reason for the decline in effort is years of being praised more for results than for effort.
Starting your kid down the path of believing they can accomplish anything if they work hard enough will do far more for their baseball career than instilling a belief that they have talent. The belief in one’s ability to accomplish anything through hard work will carry over into many other parts of life. Praise effort.
Practice with Your Kid
Practicing with a team is important. Practicing at home is even more important, to get enough repetition while keeping it fun. It can be with Mom, Dad, or an older sibling. Practicing by one’s self or with a neighbor/friend is also possible. But in my experience, that doesn’t happen much because it isn’t as fun for kids just starting out.
I know a very athletically talented kid in his 5th year of baseball who performs little better than an average player. I think it’s partly because he never practices at home with a parent or anyone else. Conversely, I have seen a few kids with ordinary talent who started baseball at the relatively late age of 8 or 9 quickly catch up to their peers. These successful late starters practiced at home with a parent or older brother. It paid off.
Try Left-handed Hitting
Genetics determine whether you are left-handed, right-handed, or ambidextrous. If you’re right-handed, you’ll throw right. If you are left-handed, you’ll throw left. Being able to throw with both hands is rare. It is very difficult for a right-handed kid to learn to throw as well with his left arm.
However, hitting is a completely different story. So-called right-handed hitting means your left leg, left shoulder, left eye, and left hip all face the pitcher. The only part that is “right” is the hand on top of the two-handed grip on the bat. This would make sense if batting one-handed because a forearm stroke (think tennis) is stronger than backhand. But hitters use two hands. As far as I can tell, right-handers batting right-handed is primarily a social convention. Everyone does it that way, so that must be the right way to do it.
Actually, it’s the wrong way. Batting left-handed has so many advantages that I could easily write a full article on the subject (Update: A few years later, I wrote Handedness in Youth Baseball). I’ll just list the most important lefty advantages:
- It is easier to see the release point from an opposite-hand pitcher. Over 85% of pitchers are right-handed. Therefore lefty batting is an advantage. This factor matters at all levels and is the principle reason why there are always far more lefty hitters in the major leagues then there are in the general population.
- After you hit a ball, a lefty starts closer to first base, facing in the right direction. With this head start, more grounders result in getting safely to first base. This matters more at the younger ages where the distance between bases is 50 to 70 feet. At high school level and beyond, this advantage matters less with 90 feet base paths.
- Bunting for a hit (drag bunting) is far easier for lefties. Right-handed batters almost never do it.
Note that there is actually some research to suggest that there is also right or left eye dominance which is not the same as right or left hand dominance. Roughly 2/3 of the population is right-eye dominant, while 88% of the population is right-hand dominant. It is possible that eye dominance matters more than hand dominance for hitting well, though research on this point is not yet conclusive.
Players of any age are capable of learning to be a switch hitter with enough practice. It typically takes 2-3 years of dedicated practice to learn to swing from the opposite side as a teenager or older. It takes no extra time if that’s how you first learn. If you look at most 4- or 5-year-olds first learning to hit, it is hard to tell if they are lefty or righty when they try both sides, as both are equally terrible.
So do your kid favor. Explain to them that the best hitters bat from the left side of the plate. Explain that this will be best for them if they want to play baseball for a long time. Then get them to try hitting lefty.
Don’t be surprised when your right-handed throwing kid insists on switching back to right-handed batting a couple years later, due to social pressure from kids, parents, or a misinformed coach. If you get into a discussion with a coach about it, you can cite these interesting statistics:
People who throw right and bat left-only in the general population are practically nonexistent, perhaps less than 1 in 1,000. Switch hitters are more common, perhaps 1 in 100. In major league history through 2014, the Lahman baseball database has data on handedness for both batting and throwing for 17,275 major league players. Among these players, 11.8% have both thrown right and batted left. Here’s the data broken out by the six possibilities, with the general population figures coming from John T. Reed’s guesswork:
|Throws||Bats||Major Leagues||General Population|
If you weren’t convinced before, you should be now. That 11.8% figure reflects the fact that lefties hit better but right-handed throwers are needed for infield positions (except first base). Athletic right-handed throwers who bat left are in short supply and high demand. It is roughly equivalent to basketball selecting for people who are over 7 feet tall . . .
By one estimate, there are normally around 70 males in the U.S. between ages 20-40 that are 7 feet or taller. This is only an estimate, but if correct that means that 17% of U.S. males who grow to 7 feet or taller will be in the NBA at some point in their lives.
In both the basketball example and the baseball lefty batting example, the sport selects for certain attributes. With basketball, you can’t do a whole lot to increase what genetics gives you for height. With baseball, genetics does put a cap on athletic potential. But genetics has little to do with batting left or right. Just choose to bat left.
All that being said, make sure that batting lefty doesn’t interfere with having fun. If, after months of practicing hitting from the left side, a kid more easily hits from the right side, then you might want to go with what naturally feels more comfortable for your kid, especially if it’s more fun.
Don’t Make Your Kid Afraid of the Ball
Nearly all starting baseball players are afraid of the ball. Some are much more afraid than others. Fear starts the first time a kid gets beaned with a hard ball. So the big trick with getting started is not to use a hard ball until they have the necessary skills and confidence.
Whiffle balls or very compressible toy balls are best for toddlers. Once a kid is completely comfortable with that, or if starting at a later age, the next step is either tennis balls or level 1 baseballs. Level 1 baseballs are used in my league for the 5-6 year old division but if I were to start with a 5-year-old who had never played catch, I would start by playing around with whiffle balls or really soft balls for a month or two before introducing Level 1 balls. Tennis balls are okay for hitting practice but have a tendency to bounce out of gloves when playing catch. I prefer white whiffles over tennis balls for hitting as well because they don’t go as fast or far, and are easier to find when lost in bushes.
The next step after level 1 balls are level 5 balls, which are used in our league by the 7-8 year old division. While not quite as hard as real baseballs, they are much harder than squishy level 1 balls and I don’t recommend them for kids who have very little experience playing catch.
My son started playing baseball at the very young age of 20 months. Before the age of 3 he wanted me to start pitching hard baseballs to him but I refused. I said, “Only if you learn to duck.” So he practiced. Thousands of ducked whiffle balls later, he could duck well. So we started using level 1 balls at about the age of 3. However, my son was an unusually motivated toddler who typically practiced over 10 hours/week. Whatever your kid’s age, use a softer than normal ball until you’re convinced he or she won’t get hurt.
- Teach your young batter how to take a hit on the upper back, using tennis balls.
- Don’t hit too-hard grounders. It will make your kid worse at fielding grounders because they will develop fear-based habits such as lifting their head, pulling their glove away, trying to field the ball outside of legs instead of between legs, etc.
- When 2 or more beginning players play catch or infield, make sure they are all paying attention, in order to avoid beaning an inattentive kid.
Start With the Right Equipment
When my son first became aware of baseball at the age of 20 months, he grabbed a broom and said, “ball, ball, ball.” A broom turned out to be the wrong piece of equipment as he never managed to hit a tennis ball with it despite trying an hour/day for 4 days. So I bought a toy bat and ball that were both very soft. That worked fine.
A few months later, he got his first glove. The ball popped out some at first, and I have since seen this repeated many times with new players. The glove pocket must be easy to open and close in order to squeeze and hold onto a caught ball. There are ways to break in gloves, but in my opinion it’s easiest to buy pre-broken-in gloves at the young ages, as I describe in Get the Best Glove.
The single biggest point of equipment failure in young kids is the bat. With toddlers you’ll start with a toy bat of some sort. Then you’ll get a very short and light tee ball bat. But most kids of any age are eager to move up to longer and heavier bats. Don’t let them.
Every year, you see a couple kids on each team who can’t bring their bat around very fast. Quite often the coach insists they use a lighter bat, and they immediately swing faster and get better hits. There’s actually a simple test to determine if a player is using a bat that is too heavy. I wrote a very detailed bat guide which explains the physics behind this. It also includes a section for 5 to 6-year-olds.
You obviously want to get a helmet before a kid faces pitches from hard baseballs.
The other piece of equipment is a batting tee, and possibly a hitting net as well. The first tee we purchased was an inexpensive $30 model that fell apart after a thousand or so swings destroyed the pole. While buying low cost versions of baseball equipment is fine for starting players with most types of equipment, a hitting tee is the exception. It is worth paying for a $70 model instead of a $30 model. Elsewhere, I discuss why and how to use a tee along with recommended models.
Get Started with Calisthenics Early
In the U.S., most kids don’t do physical conditioning of any sort until high school, or at earliest junior high. Perhaps this is part of the reason why there are so many youth sports injuries in the U.S.
One of the most interesting sports articles I’ve read discusses the reasons why so many tennis stars come from Russia, and so many come from one particular club, Spartak Tennis Club, located in a small town out in the boondocks. It had to do with the lesson plans. What really caught my eye was the emphasis on general physical conditioning. The 5- to 7-year-old class was not permitted to play tennis for the first three years of training. They just did a variety of muscle strengthening exercises and ballet-like tennis moves to learn form. Ordinary kids who persevered with this training regimen all turned into good tennis players, and quite a few went on to become international tennis stars.
The culture in the U.S. is different around conditioning so I don’t expect many people will get their kids on a regimen similar to that of the Spartak Tennis Club. Nonetheless, you can at least nudge your kid in that direction with exercises particularly helpful for baseball, such as:
Running: Whether playing tag, running races with friends, or playing a running sport like soccer or basketball, there’s universal agreement that running around is good for kids no matter what sport they play, and baseball is no exception. There’s not much running in baseball so your kid needs to find other fun ways to run around.
Jump rope: Baseball is all about coordinating various body parts together gracefully. Any activity which does this is helpful, including juggling, dancing, skateboarding, pogo sticking, etc. But jumping rope is particularly good as it quickly gets the heart going and requires quite a bit of coordination as you learn various tricks.
Five minute calisthenics routine: My son didn’t start doing a morning routine until he was 10. In retrospect, I wish he had started at the age of 8, or perhaps even earlier with really simple exercises. Pick 3 or 4 common calisthenics and do them as part of the morning wake-up routine. My son does 25 push-ups, 5 one-armed planks from each side (reaches under his chest), and 5 leg lifts from each side. He added wall squats to the routine a few months later.
Update: Two years later, my son began a formal strength and conditioning program centered around calisthenics, which I discussed in Strength and Conditioning Guide for Pre-High School Athletes (Especially Baseball)
Play Multiple Sports and Other Physical Activities
Numerous studies support balanced physical development. The natural way to do that is to engage in a wide variety of sports and other physical activities. Many kids will do this somewhat naturally by running around and playing physical games or sports with school friends at recess or neighborhood friends at home.
However, over the past couple decades, two trends have been working against this:
- Decline of neighborhood play: When choosing your permanent place of residence, include active neighborhoods in your criteria. Kids will develop wonderfully if they have kids to run around with in their neighborhood. My best friend from the age of 3-10 was Chris Flynn. He didn’t do much organized sports until he was 9 but he went on to become a college football star and professional lacrosse player. We played many hours per week outside with other kids from the neighborhood.
- Rise of sports specialization: In baseball, the rise of travel ball is having some kids play year round and drop all other sports in order to do what it takes to be the best young baseball player. Regardless of your opinion on how important this is for developing a youth athlete, it is well known that year-round play of a single sport below high school age is not a good way to develop a body, and increases chances for injury. Even at the high school level it’s a good idea to play at least 2 organized sports. Some go so far as to say that hyperspecialization is ruining youth sports.
Kids who engage in a wide variety of physical activities, play outside with their school and neighborhood friends, and don’t specialize will develop well. They will also have less need for calisthenics to ensure balanced physical development.
Above all, Have Fun!
You hear it from experienced baseball coaches. You hear it from players who made the major leagues. At the youngest ages (10 and below), it’s about having fun. Many kids will naturally love baseball and have a lot of fun with it, so long as parents or coaches don’t turn too serious.
Kids who like baseball won’t always want to efficiently drill the same things. Pitchers will want to experiment with goofy grips and funny windups. Hitters will want to imitate batting stances they’ve seen on TV. Fielders may want to spend excessive time trying to dive for the ball or execute a Derek Jeter throw. Whatever. If they’re having fun, they’ll be motivated to stick with it for a long time and they will become more disciplined with their practice time as they mature.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t ever make a kid play baseball. Encourage them to pursue their passions, not yours. If they like baseball but they’re not ready for team play, don’t force it. You can tell which kids are being forced to play. They are almost always among the worst players and look like they don’t want to be there.
For beginning baseball players at the early ages, nothing matters more than having fun.