Play Ball!

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Originally appeared in
Earth Star Magazine December 2007/ January 2008
By Rosemary Gaddum Gordon, D.B.O., M.A.

By the time you read this, the World Series win by the Red Sox will be old news. Today, though, the images of extraordinary curve balls and splitters hurtling towards the batter at 96 mph are still fresh in my mind. The fact that the batters can hit any of those balls shows magnificent hand-eye coordination. The ability to follow the ball accurately enough to hit it is a learned skill. Yes, some people are naturally better than others and seem wired to excel at sports, but they still had to practice and develop that visual skill in order to be that good.

When we are born our eyes can jump from one object to another but the ability to follow something is learned and develops over time. Since this is an acquired skill we can practice and improve it. In my teaching I come across many people who say they “can’t catch anything but the ‘flu.” In fact, when we start to practice they are afraid of the ball. Some of them have been hurt by flying objects which might account for their fear, but most of these people lived in families who didn’t teach and encourage them to follow the ball. These people often carry shame at not having this skill. They were picked last for team sports and are often shy because they felt left out.

We can start helping kids to develop these smooth pursuit movements, (as they are called in the vision world,) quite young. By around three months a baby can follow a toy or mommy around the room, though the movements are jerky at first. As toddlers they like rolling balls or little toys on wheels back and forth on the floor. Once they are steady on their feet we can play bouncing ball games, first with big balls and then gradually reducing the size.

There are two important things to remember as the “coach”: keep the game within the child’s skill level so that it’s fun and watch their eyes to make sure they are on the ball. Many kids, especially girls, tend to look at the person they are playing with, not the ball. They see it peripherally, but they are not looking at it and they don’t know the difference. In order to follow we have to look. Over time the games can progress to catch and wiffle ball, softball, tennis, Frisbee, squash, baseball etc.

We associate most of these activities with summer and being outdoors, especially here in Red Sox country, but there are ways to practice indoors too. You can play with balloons or games involving nerf balls. A great way to promote more complexity of eye and whole body movements is to bounce on a mini trampoline as you play. This is fun and helps with balance as it challenges the visual system to open to all the movement as we watch the ball. (If you don’t have a trampoline, I recommend a Needak. It’s quiet and easy on the knees.)

There are people who don’t like sports for reasons other than an inability to follow a moving object. This is their choice. However, the skill is still important to develop. It helps us drive more safely, read more fluidly – and catch our socks when someone throws them to us! We may never hone our smooth pursuit movements to the level of hitting a screw ball, but as parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends we can help a child, (or an adult for that matter,) develop these skills and have better sight and more ease in the world.

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