“Only use one hand when you catch!” instructed Coach Schlegelmich.
“What?” I asked, caught by surprise.
“You put your right hand behind the glove when you catch,” he explained. “It reduces your range of motion and makes you slower.”
I pitched the ball to my partner, Emily. She tossed it back. Coach was right: when my glove closed around the ball, my right hand sat resting on the back of the glove.
“Work on that,” he told me and walked off to observe the other girls.
That night, my roommate, Mikayla, and I played catch in our apartment’s parking lot. I couldn’t shake the habit. I stood there each time, glove hand ready with my right arm resting at my side. Mikayla threw the ball. I told myself not to move my right arm but it refused to listen each time.
“I think the problem,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “is that you don’t trust your left arm. And you might be scared of the ball.”
Neither of us had to say why. Mikayla was at that practice when Jadon hit a ground ball to me at second base, but it took a bad hop on the dirt of the infield and I misjudged the bounce. The ball hit my right knee hard, leaving a spotted black bruise with the stitches of the ball imprinted on my skin in red. I could hardly walk for a few days after that.
She witnessed my first concussion. I didn’t get it from playing sports, but it forced me to be cautious and afraid. Hitting my head again could actually kill me. I couldn’t play softball or volleyball for two weeks.
She witnessed my second concussion, only ten months later. This one came in the form of an aggressively spiked volleyball that hit me right on the eye. For the second time in less than a year I was completely incapacitated, plagued by splitting headaches, nausea and fatigue. I couldn’t play softball or volleyball for two months.
When I finally could play again, I wasn’t the same. I flinched every time I heard the sound of the bat hitting the ball. I hid behind my glove when the outfielders threw the ball to me and often missed the catch.
Injury after injury- increasing in severity each time- made me afraid. It made me hesitant. It made me overcompensate when I tried to catch. It actually made me a worse player, and- in a backwards way- made me more likely to get hurt.
“You have to trust yourself,” Mikayla said. “You’re going to get hurt again, but I know how much you love this game and I know quitting isn’t an option for you. The best way to protect yourself is to stop protecting yourself. So let’s conquer your fear.”
We retreated to our apartment to grab a belt from Mikayla’s closet. She wrapped it around my waist with my right arm pinned to my side. We stood eight feet apart in the middle of the parking lot, me one-armed and feeling nervous. This went against my every instinct. With a cinch of a belt, Mikayla took away my defense mechanism. I was completely vulnerable and exposed. Now, the only thing between the ball and my body was my glove.
Mikayla threw softly to me and I flipped the ball back to her out of my glove with each miraculous catch. No matter how hard I tried, my arm could not leave my side.
To my complete shock, my arm stopped fighting the belt. I actually began to catch the ball better than ever and could feel the difference in my reach and speed. Mikayla undid the belt and we kept throwing.
I’m still scared. The two concussions I had were some of the worst experiences of my life. Having two makes me even likelier to get a third if I receive another bad blow to the head. But I keep playing. I have to. I face my fear every time I step on the field because the alternative is to avoid the field altogether. I had to learn to trust myself again. The best way to protect myself is to believe in my ability. That, and to tie my arm to my side with a belt.