The basics of baseball are easier to learn if fear isn't a factor the fear of not hitting the ball, or worse yet, the fear of getting hit by the ball.
Through tee-ball, growing numbers of Lawrence kindergartners, first- and second-graders are getting their first lessons in baseball and softball and leaving fear in the dugout.
Since 1989, the number of children enrolled in the tee-ball league offered through the Holcom Park Recreation Center has more than doubled to 468, said Christy Humerickhouse, youth activities supervisor and center director.
In tee-ball, one of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department's summer sports activities, a batter hits the ball off a tee instead of swinging at a pitched ball.
The children gradually learn about every aspect of the game, she said, starting from what is a bat and what is a ball.
"Usually, kids are just thrown into the game," Humerickhouse said. "This gives them a chance to ease into it."
THE TEE, she said, allows the children to concentrate on hand-eye coordination and the rules of the game without worrying about an oncoming ball, she said.
"Every time they walk up to the plate, they're going to hit the ball," she said. "It's an always moving game. That way, we don't have defense players getting bored."
Tee-ball uses a ball that's softer than a baseball or a softball, Humerickhouse noted, so if a player is hit by a ball, he or she doesn't become afraid of it.
"They recover quicker and are more apt to jump right back in," she said.
Joe Thomas, whose two daughters, Joan, 6, and Terry, 8, played tee-ball for the first time this summer, said the coaches did "an incredible job" of teaching the basic skills.
"My kids' skills really improved," Thomas said. "They understand the game now."
ONE REASON for the increasing popularity of the game, Humerickhouse noted, is the instructional, non-competitive atmosphere of the program.
"Our program has a philosophy to teach sportsmanship first. We're not interested so much in winning or losing, just having fun and learning the basic fundamentals," she said.
Scores are not kept during games, and the innings are over when every player on each team has had a chance to bat and field, she explained.
"It's important at that age that all the kids get an equal amount of work," Humerickhouse noted, "which means having reliable and responsible coaches."
During the seven-week duration of the recreation department's tee-ball league, the coaches spend about 30 hours a week with their teams, either practicing or playing games, she noted.
The coaches are trained to provide a relaxed, instructional atmosphere for the children.
"In the long run, we keep the interest of the kids in the game longer. This doesn't burn kids out because it's fun for them," she noted of the non-competitive aspect of the game.
SEAN SAFFOLD, one of the tee-ball coaches, said the program's equal treatment of players takes pressure off the children.
"I started playing sports when I was 7 years old and played through college football, so I can understand the danger of burn-out," he said.
Saffold said that while he emphasized the importance of equality and sportsmanship, he also encouraged the children to challenge themselves, which they did.
"You'd be surprised at how well some of them can hit and run," he said.
"All of the kids had a lot of character."