Saturday, November 3, 2018

Baseball and Softball Gear Reviews: The Skilz Reaction Ball

Whether you play baseball or softball, have kids that do, or coach a team one of the most basic and primary skills in the sport is fielding ground balls. It's one of the first things kids are taught when they put a glove on and while it's seemingly the simplest of skills, it can take a lifetime to master. Even at the highest levels of play, fielding grounders is a challenge not least of which because the ball can often take wild and unpredictable bounces. Because of this, grounders are something that everyone playing baseball or softball needs to practice fielding throughout their playing careers. The challenge, especially with younger players, is making that practice fun so that proper skills are learned through repetition.

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For the majority of my own baseball career I was a catcher so spent most of my time honing skills such as blocking balls in the dirt, catching pop ups, and calling (and catching) different pitches. When I played in college, I moved to right or left field and was more focused on tracking and catching long fly balls while trying to avoid crashing into the fence. Now as a parent I coach my four kids who play baseball/softball (including two who play year round travel ball). I spend a lot of my free time working with my kids both individually in our free time and also with their teams since I help coach  them. Somehow a catcher like me fathered two players (my oldest daughter and my son) both of whose best position is shortstop...we're not sure what my youngest daughter will gravitate toward and my other daughter was a catcher when she played. I spend a lot of time with all of them working on hitting, fly balls, throwing, and of course fielding grounders. I've always been a firm believer in teaching a solid foundation of fundamental skills and making sure they've mastered those before building any advanced techniques upon that base. With that said, for a long time I had been struggling on how to help my kids field bad hops. As part of our routine, I would purposely hit them choppers or short hop grounders, but it became predicable and I couldn't find a good way to introduce more randomness to better simulate actual game situations.

The solution came when I was attending a baseball camp with my son this past January. At one of the infield drill stations they had buckets of these lumpy yellow balls I'd never seen before. The drill was for the boys to field the balls as they took random bounces and hops and then throw them back to the coaches. I thought these balls were cool so after the camp I asked about them and they directed me to Amazon. They kept calling them "Jeter balls" because I guess Derek Jeter had endorsed them or used them a few years ago, but I found them under the name of "reaction balls." I bought a couple of them and took them to the indoor facility where I work with my kids to use when we did infielding drills. My kids took to them right away and found them fun to use. All I do is have them get in their ready positions for fielding and roll the reaction ball to them. They then have to track it with their eyes while using proper foot- and handwork to field it cleanly as it takes it's random bounces. Sometimes this means they'll have to reach to forehand or backhand it, and sometimes this means it will take a strange hop in front of them that they'll need to block with their bodies. They both had a lot of fun working with it and still do; we've made drills with the reactions balls a regular part of our practice routine. It's definitely helped my two shortstops track and react to strange hops and that's led to fewer errors and excellent hand/eye coordination in practices and games. For $10 it's a really simple and fun way to improve fielding and the nice thing is you can even use it inside the house and practice barehanded during the winter. I always keep a couple stashed in my bag for practices and if you're a coach or have kids that play I'd definitely recommend getting one of these.

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