During tournament competition, League officials and Babe Ruth Commissioners must also focus on providing a safe environment for players, coaches and spectators at youth baseball and softball games.
There is so much going on during tournaments. As many as 30 players are full of energy, anxious to play catch and swing bats. In fact, if there are two teams playing and two teams waiting to play, there can be as many as 60 energized kids within a fairly confined area. Parents set up their lawn chairs and picnic blankets so that they can relax and socialize with their peers all around the field. The players’ siblings are running around with the other brothers and sisters, unconcerned that a baseball game is going on.
With so much action involving so many children, there are many factors that can turn what looks like a simple, fun tournament game into a potential safety hazard – both on and off the field. It’s probably not possible to make any athletic venue completely safe for everyone; however there are some precautions that can be taken to help ensure an atmosphere that promotes safety.
Make Sure Equipment Fits and Is Not Worn Out
This seems like an obvious safety precaution, but we all are aware that many youth programs have to deal with budget constraints. Not having enough money in the budget to purchase new equipment every year can lead to equipment that is passed down and used much longer than it is functional. Worn out equipment is dangerous for obvious reasons. Sometimes equipment that is handed down is not meant for the age group using it. A helmet that is too large can cover a batter’s eyes and prevent him from reacting to an inside pitch that might hit him. A helmet that is too small might not provide proper protection. Catcher’s gear that is too large might shift and leave an area of the body exposed that shouldn’t be. If the gear is too small it might not cover all the body parts that it should. As coaches don’t be afraid to speak up and let your commissioner know that you don’t have the proper equipment. Sticking to a budget is important, but not at the expense of anyone’s safety. If the league won’t cooperate, consider explaining the problem to your parents. A small donation from everyone can easily cover the cost of catcher’s gear and batting helmets.
Use Appropriate Bats and Balls
It is important to understand which bats and balls are appropriate to the age group you are coaching. It is also important to know which bats and balls are legal and must be used per the Rules and Regulations of Babe Ruth League, Inc.
Designate an Area for Warming Up
When teams are getting ready to play, there is a desire and a need to warm up properly for the game. This can include playing catch and some sort of batting practice. If teams are playing catch on the field before the game, they should play catch in the outfield grass, preferably along one of the foul lines, with everyone throwing in the same direction. If two or three kids decide to throw in a different direction, overthrows can be dangerous to players or spectators. In addition, spectators should be sure not to set up their chairs or blankets directly behind the spot where a team is playing catch.
When there is no batting cage, teams like to get creative with their pre-game batting practice, especially if they don’t have access to the field. Once again it is imperative to find an open area to hit, as far away from spectators as possible. Players hitting, as well as the on-deck batters should wear helmets at all times, regardless of the type of ball being used. Most hitting-related injuries seem to be head injuries that occur when someone without a helmet gets hit by a careless swing.
Pick Out a Safe Rooting Location
Parents usually like to sit on the same side of the field as their team’s bench. And they often prefer to set up their chairs and blankets out of play farther down the baseline than where the bench is located. They usually choose this location over sitting in bleachers behind a fence or setting their chairs or blankets up behind fenced-in areas where the view might not be perfect. Often the area that they pick is in a location that is exposed to hard-hit foul balls or errant throws. This can be okay if the parents are alert and constantly paying attention to the game. More times than not, however, the game becomes a social event. Conversations distract the spectators from the game action, which means they are not prepared to protect themselves from batted or thrown balls. This becomes even more dangerous when small children are thrown into the mix without having alert adults available to protect them.
As a coach you can help your supporters pick out a safe area from which to root for the team. One idea is to have a team banner made and hung or placed in an area that is less likely to be a target for foul balls and that is safe from any potential errant throws. This can be designated as the official rooting section and team supporters can be directed to sit there. Another possibility is to talk to the parents to make sure that at least one person is designated to “stand guard” each inning. This parent would make sure to warn spectators of incoming balls and would be prepared to protect the others if necessary. Finally, it is imperative that coaches and spectators make sure that children who are playing together are far enough away from the field to be out of danger.
Assign a Coach or Parent to Bench Duty
Pick a parent or one of your assistants to be on “bench duty” for each game. It will be this person’s responsibility to make sure the bench area is safe. The on-deck hitter should be forced to wear a helmet and should be the only player other than the batter to have a bat in his hands. The next couple of players in the lineup should wear helmets, but they should be sitting on the bench with their teammates. It is the on-deck batter’s responsibility to remove the hitter’s bat after he drops it and runs to first. This should be done quickly if there is a potential play at home plate so that the runner doesn’t slide into the bat and the catcher doesn’t trip over it. All players not in the game should be on the bench or in the bench area. The only time they should go to play catch would be if they were warming up to come into the game. When that time comes the parent on “bench duty” should make sure that they throw in a safe location away from any potential batted or thrown balls as well as any spectators. If a pitcher must warm up to go into a game at a location that is near the playing field, it is the responsibility of the coach to make sure that there is a player, coach or parent there to stand in front of the pitcher and protect him from batted or thrown balls.
Walk the Field Before the Game
Coaches should walk the entire field before any game or practice to get a feel for any areas that might be dangerous. Look for bumpy ground, holes or gullies, large rocks, broken glass or anything else that could cause an injury situation. Dangerous items should be removed from the field. Players should be informed of any areas of the field that might potentially cause an injury so that they can try to avoid them. If you are practicing and the infield seems excessively rough or dangerous, you might want to take your infielders to a flat, grassy area or a blacktop so that they can practice the proper techniques without having their bodies take a beating. It’s very hard – not to mention dangerous -- to teach a young player how to field properly if he is being bruised by balls that constantly are taking bad hops.
Keep Their Heads in the Game
Baseball and softball, by nature, are games that feature a substantial amount of downtime and standing around. As a coach it is imperative to impress upon your players the concept of a proper ready position and to keep them focused on the game. Coaches are supposed to be paying attention to every pitch, so it shouldn’t be too hard to verbally remind your players to be prepared before each pitch. Remind them how many outs there are and make sure they don’t have their hands on their knees. They should be in an athletic stance with their bodies square to home plate. Make sure the players understand the game situation and are aware which bases the ball might be thrown to if it is hit. This can help avoid a player making a throw to a teammate who is not expecting it.
Teach the Proper Fundamental Techniques
Teach your players to approach the game in such a way that they will be less likely to put themselves in potential injury situations. Vision is the most important defense mechanism on the field. If the player can see the ball and the glove (ground balls and throws should be caught out in front of the body and fly balls should be caught with two hands over the head) or can see the pitch with both eyes, he is more likely to catch or get out of the way of a ball that takes a bad hop or to get out of the way of an inside pitch. Don’t be afraid to throw foam rubber balls at your team in practice to teach them how to get out of the way of pitches. Turn batting practice into a dodge ball game one day. The players will have fun with it while learning how to protect themselves. Ultimately that will give them more confidence at the plate. For a skill like bunting, it is easier for a player who pivots on both feet to get out of the way of an inside pitch than for a player who squares his entire body to the pitcher. Also, when it comes to bunting, the top hand should never be wrapped completely around the bat.
First Aid Considerations
Every youth team should be given a freshly stocked first aid kit by its league administration. Of course this doesn’t always happen. A basic first aid kit is not very expensive, so we would recommend that a coach consider making that small investment to help ensure the safety of his or her team. If that is not possible maybe you can solicit small donations from the parents.
A big plus would be if a member of the coaching staff or a parent was first aid certified. First aid certification courses last only a few short hours and are very inexpensive. They are held frequently at your local chapter of the American Red Cross. A few short hours of your time will allow you to provide a safer environment for your team.