The "Beginner" Trap
How many times have you read or heard someone teaching how to catch for beginners? Or, have you ever heard of teaching kids the "fundamentals". I have heard this countless times. My question is always this... Who defines the fundamentals of catching? Is it just someone's opinion? In the following article I will give you what I think of fundamentals and how focussing on these so called fundamentals will inhibit the growth of your catcher.
Lets define the term fundamentals using Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:
1. serving as an original or generating source
2. serving as a basis supporting existence or determining essential structure or function
Lets first talk about the importance of fundamentals. Without a starting point, we can't teach catching. So there has to be a starting point. We always start with the fundamentals. Here is my opinion on what the fundamentals of catching are. Squat. Catch the ball. Block the ball. Throw the ball. Those are the simple basics. If you are a little leaguer just starting out, you need to be able to squat, catch the ball, block the ball, and throw the ball. Truthfully though, you don't even need to be able to block the ball because most leagues don't allow runners to advance on missed pitches until a couple years into playing and they also are not allowed to steal bases for a couple of years as well. So we could say the fundamentals are squat and catch. So catching broken down to its simplest form is just that; Squat. Catch.
Now lets look at the "fundamentals" for a high school catcher, a college catcher, and a professional catcher. A high school catcher must be able to squat (properly), block the ball, throw the ball, and field his position. College catchers must also be able to squat properly, not just catch the ball but make the border line pitches look like strikes, block the ball effectively (keeping runners from advancing), throw out base runners at a high rate, field the position, and sometimes call a game if the coach will allow it. Professional catchers must be able to squat properly in order to give the umpire a clear view of the pitch so that the catcher can steal more strike calls and be able to block tough pitches that many catchers can't block as well as make good, accurate throws to each base while throwing out base runners around a 1.9 pop time. Professional catchers must also be able to field their position effectively, making minimal mistakes as well as call a good game and managing the pitching staff effectively.
Now, I want to go back to talking about fundamentals for beginners. I have had the opportunity to train many catchers over the last 10 years. They have ranged from ages 7 all the way up to 20. One thing that has been consistent with young catchers across the country is that they are taught the "fundamentals" all the way through the high school years by many coaches. I have run across a few catchers who have been taught more than just fundamentals but it is surprising how little these kids are taught real catching philosophy. What I think about is the fact that most kids playing the game of baseball have a desire to play at the highest level possible for their skill set. If they are only being taught "fundamentals" and "beginner" type of information they are being hindered of reaching their maximum potential and skill level. It is time for a change and it has to start from the bottom up. It has been my experience that young kids have a fairly high aptitude for learning and enjoy learning the tougher techniques. I also think there is nothing wrong with teaching kids advanced techniques once they start to get a grasp on the fundamentals. Why? Because the fundamentals are things that they will perform day in and day out as catchers. They are constantly practicing the fundamentals without being told to do so. However, what they are not able to work on are the advanced techniques because they are not being taught.
Kids are being kept in a small box. When someone is put into a box and left there they can only grow as big as that box will allow. Kids need to be let out of the box in order to grow as much as their skills will allow them to grow. We have to believe in the kid so the kid will believe in him/herself. The more they believe in themselves the better they will learn the advanced techniques and skills. Belief increases aptitude. If you tell kids they can't learn advanced skills then they won't. I am reminded of what Russia used to do back in the 70s and 80s when they won many of the gold medals in the olympics. They would start training kids in specialized events at the age of 4. Now, am I advocating that we start rigorous training at such a young age for our athletes? No, not at all. What I am doing is pointing out that kids have been taught advanced techniques in sport and have done well with them. So why do we somehow think kids cannot learn the hard stuff? I know they can because I teach it to them and I have seen kids grow exponentially from it. It seems to me like many youth coaches are afraid to let athletes fail because they think the child will lose confidence. The truth is, kids feel better when pushed through difficulty and then succeed. They feel a sense of accomplishment rather than a sense of entitlement. The kids learn to believe in themselves and grow in their confidence which in turn will help them to learn more advanced skills.
Lastly, I want to touch on how focussing too much on the fundamentals causes catchers to get too caught up in doing the proper form rather than making a play. Catching is a dynamic position that requires athleticism and the ability to make plays that we cannot work on in practice. I will use blocking as my example. Many catcher are taught the "fundamentals" of blocking and they do a great job of going directly to the position that coach taught them but they don't have the success they think they should. Part of the reason they are not having success is becasue the "fundamentals" are not dynamic. They are too simplistic and consistently blocking a ball effectively requires much more creativity and athleticism from a catcher than simply going to your knees and covering the 5-hole with your chin down.
I hope this article is helpful to many of you reading it. Hopefully it opens a few eyes to see that fundamentals alone are not enough and my hope is that this article will inspire young catchers to push past fundamentals of catching and start to work on dynamic moves while maximizing their talents to become skillfull, effective catchers. If you are not aware, you will fall into the "beginner" trap and be a beginner all the way through high school and you will be frustrated as to why you are not performing at the level you know you can.