Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Play the Ball (Don’t Let it Play You)

   If you've ever played baseball, it’s likely you learned that to best field a ground ball you need to move forward toward the ball as it’s approaching you. By doing so you control the point at which the ball reaches your glove, making it easier to field. Should you stand still and wait for the ball to reach you, the ball may take a hard-to-handle short hop. (In baseball parlance, “The ball will eat you up.”)

This principle, in a more general way, applies to other situations in sports. By being proactively aggressive, you take control of situations as opposed to them controlling you. You dictate the conditions (even in defensive circumstances). You provide yourself with more opportunities to succeed. You further bolster your confidence, while possibly lessening your opponent’s.

Let's take a look at a few of the ways you can apply this principle to your game.

Proactively Defending an Opponent

If you’re defending an outstanding player in a team sport, you have two choices:
  1. Defend your opponent after he or she receives the ball.

  2. Defend your opponent before the ball is received.
The first approach requires you to react to your opponent’s actions. At this point, you may be helpless to handle your opponent’s considerable offensive skills (or you may need to foul your opponent to prevent a score).

The second approach, on the other hand, is one in which you dictate the conditions. You aggressively try to deny the ball from ever reaching your opponent. You choose to defend another part of your opponent’s game—the ability to get open and receive a pass. Without the ball, he or she can’t score. You negate an entire part of your opponent’s game. And just as important, your aggressive defense may psychologically “take your opponent out of the game.” Without the ball, your opponent may be the one who becomes passive and ineffective.

Similarly, you can deny your opponent the opportunity to dictate play in individual sports. For example, a tennis player may choose to regularly serve and volley against a baseline player who doesn't possess a good return (or who wants long rallies).

The Dangers of Being Passive

To the opposite, if you’re passive, you will likely lose control of the play and subject yourself to more of those “short hops” that lead to errors. But it’s not just that. You will also miss out on opportunities to make big plays—the home runs that sometimes win a contest.

In describing his frustration over his team’s lack of a punt return game, the NFL coach, Wade Phillips wryly said of his punt returner, “He’s not really a punt returner, he’s more of a punt catcher.” Like most NFL coaches, Wade was looking for his punt returner to make plays. Simply catching the ball (or watching it bounce and roll dead) wasn't good enough. Wade knew his team’s chances of winning were improved by the occasional big play.

And it’s not just missing out on the big plays. Passively watching and reacting almost always leads to mediocre performance. You are back on your heels and off balance, not only in a physical sense, but also in a psychological one. You’re on the defensive and this tends to sap your confidence over time.


Instead of watching, you need to proactively engage—and do so at a point where you can more easily control the play and outcome. For instance, if you’re a basketball or hockey player helping out a beaten teammate in a defensive situation, you shouldn't wait until the attacking player is close to the goal and about to score. Instead, if possible, engage the opponent earlier to prevent a score (and avoid fouling the player as he or she shoots).

Of course there are situations and match-ups where you need to be defensive and selectively look for opportunities to attack. But these are ideally under your control. You choose to play more conservatively. You set up your opponent for your counterpunch. You’re the spider, weaving the web.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)

Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved


Emma Coppelman said...

These are great pointers, if only I can apply it in my playing skills. But I know I'm really hopeless so I'll just be a contented Yankees fan. Though I would love to enroll my son to a baseball camp, who has shown a great passion for the sport (with a bit of my influence). I've seen some potential in him and I'm hoping to develop it more.

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