How to catch a ball
December 8, 2013
The following is an excerpt from an instructional document I've written for my newborn niece and nephew, Milo and Mina. It's called "How to do Stuff — The Manual for Things that Don't Generally Come with a Manual." It's the document that I wish I'd received as a child.
At some point in your life you will be called upon to catch a ball. This may not be an act of your choosing, but nevertheless there you'll be, with a ball headed in your general direction, a ball that someone, or someones, are really counting on you to catch. It can be a difficult skill to learn at first, but like so many things you'll learn early in life it will serve you well later on. (See Chapter 5, "Why Phase Out Something as Convenient as Wearing a Diaper?")
Before we begin, it's important to know that certain balls are made for catching — basket, foot, wiffle- whereas there are others that you should avoid catching at all costs — bowling, cannon, wrecking. Being able to quickly, if not instantly, distinguish these two categories will add greatly to your enjoyment of the ball-catching process. Some balls are best caught with both hands, and we'll cover these in the next chapter, but for starters we'll focus on the one-handed catch. For the purpose of this exercise, let's assume the ball in question is about the size, weight, color, smell, texture and pliability of a tennis ball. Or, better yet, let's just assume it's an actual tennis ball. Why make this overly complicated, right?
The first thing you'll need is to find someone willing to throw a ball to you. This is easily done if you're participating in a ball-based sporting event, but you'll want to have at least a working knowledge of this skill before you find yourself in such a situation. The thrower you choose should preferably be someone who is patient, who likes you and who isn't a failed major leaguer looking to work out their frustrations on an infant. You may be tempted to skip this detail and just bounce the ball against a wall and catch it as it comes back. This doesn't count. Not enough at stake. Same goes for throwing the ball up in the air and catching it as it comes down. You'll also be tempted to throw the ball "to yourself," thinking that you can surely run really fast to the place where you just threw it and get there in time to catch it. This is one of the many things in life that really seems like it should be possible, but it just isn't. (See Chapter 47, "Going to School in Your Underwear.")
OK, we're ready. The person has just thrown the ball to you! Now what?
STEP 1: You'll notice that the ball is headed directly toward your face. This is normal. Balls moving though space are gravitationally drawn toward the most vulnerable and comedic-potential-rich part of your body. (Note to Milo — for you, this area will shift when you reach adolescence.) Move your body slightly to one side so that the ball is now approaching the general area of your (raised) hand.
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STEP 2: From this point on things will be happening kind of fast. As the ball comes closer and closer, line up your hand so that the ball is going to impact the center of your palm. This will require increasingly precise micro-adjustments over the next split-second. In fact, the seemingly simple act of catching a ball is such a complicated interplay of neural and muscular functions that it's mind-boggling. Do not focus on this at the moment.
STEP 3: At the exact moment the ball smacks your hand, quickly close your fingers around it. "Quickly" is the key word here.
STEP 4a: If your catch is successful, you'll be tempted to celebrate. This is fine, but consider the even cooler, casual approach. Kind of a "Yeah, I just caught a ball with one hand for the first time, ain't no thang."
STEP 4b: If you miss your catch, say one of the following before picking up the ball and throwing it back (See Chapter 13, "Picking Things Up and Throwing Them Back."):
1. "I wasn't ready."
2. "The sun was in my eyes."
3. "I hate this game."
STEP 5: Repeat the above steps until you're satisfied with your newfound catching abilities.
CONCLUSION: This skill is transferable! Using the same principles, you can catch all sorts of things with one hand. There are few things as satisfying as effortlessly catching a set of car keys tossed across the room to you. Though by the time you're old enough to read this there may not be such a thing as car keys anymore. Nevermind.
Next time: "How to Cheat at Monopoly, Assuming There's Still Such a Thing as Monopoly…"
Barry Smith's column appears Mondays. More at http://www.barrysmith.com
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