Challenger Baseball and Occupational Therapy Hit a Home Run
By Ashley Opp
A baseball diamond may seem an unlikely place to encounter occupational therapy, but this is where the Challenger Baseball players of Cross Lanes, West Virginia, have learned and improved countless skills. Two teams made up of 10 to12 children with mental or physical disabilities use baseball to improve motor, cognitive, and social skills—and they get a little dirty at the same time.
School-based occupational therapist Mary Hager, MA, OTR/L, FAOTA, has coached the Challenger Baseball teams as a volunteer for 18 years. Hager’s children had been involved in Little League Baseball, and her husband sat on the board of the Cross Lanes Little League. “He came home and said, ‘There’s a brand new idea out there called Challenger Baseball,’” recalls Hager. The board president had asked if this was something the Cross Lanes Little League would consider. “I got excited about it,” says Hager. “I was sure that I knew of [kids] who would like to play.” Hager presented the idea to some of the parents of the children she worked with at the local school, and it was wholeheartedly embraced.
Players range in age from 5 to 21 years old and have disabilities that include developmental delay, cerebral palsy, and autism. Any Little League organization can have a Challenger Division, although many do not. Cross Lanes has two teams that play “against” each other, but they do not keep score. “One of the beautiful things about Challenger Baseball is that everyone cheers for everyone,” says Hager. Practice begins in April, games start in May, and they play 10 games per season. Players remain on their respective teams for the entire season, boosting camaraderie and social skills. This year, sponsors came forward to help pay for uniforms.
Volunteering for Challenger Baseball has given Hager many opportunities to explain or clarify occupational therapy. After games, people ask her what she does and what occupation therapy is. Some of the players on the regular baseball teams (“helper teams”) assist players in the Challenger Division and, as they engage in various activities, ask Hager how occupational therapy relates to what they are doing. “It’s those really neat, informal ways where I’m able to get an idea across rather than a whole definition,” says Hager. “And I think it’s pretty cool that the kids even ask!”
Hager approaches coaching through the eyes of an occupational therapist. Her occupational therapy training and experience make her knowledgeable about what these children require to participate in the games, and she works patiently with her players to help them meet their goals. More tangibly, it has helped her determine proper modifications to enable the children to engage in one of their primary occupations: play. “Because I’m an occupational therapist, the modifications that we do just seem to come as second nature,” says Hager. For instance, all of the children want to bat a ball thrown by a pitcher. Hager allows this and affirms their efforts, then modifies the activity with a tee to hold the ball in place, if necessary. Another game modification might include having a child who cannot run walk to a base with a helper team member.
Most exciting to Hager are the Challenger players’ improvements. Motor skills, in particular, have improved. By the end of the season, children who initially had no idea which base to throw the ball to could correctly identify where it needed to go. They also could run to the right base—and stay there (no small task, Hager says)—until their turn came again. “These are huge things for our kids to be able to do,” says Hager. All of the Challenger players have the opportunity to pitch, addressing another set of motor skills. They learn to throw the ball toward a certain spot for a batter. If the ball is hit, they can retrieve and throw it to the right base. When it comes to batting, many players progress from being able to only hit from a tee to hitting a pitched ball. “They just feel so accomplished,” says Hager. Some Challenger players have even graduated to the roles of coach or umpire.
In addition to developing motor skills, players benefit socially from being on a team. Teammates become friends. “The fact that they can sit in the dugout and wait their turn is really huge,” Hager says. “The interaction of them knowing what is happening in the game and being able to cheer for their teammates is just wonderful.” The helper team members also help foster social interaction, encouraging and assisting the players.
Challenger Baseball also has left a special mark on the community. As part of earning their Eagle Scout award, two boy scouts have done projects to improve the Challenger players’ field. Three girls did field improvement projects as part of earning their Girl Scout Gold Award. “That was another neat population that could learn about Challengers and about those with special needs,” Hager says.
Volunteers help maintain the field, parents bring refreshments and cheer, and some parents even coach or umpire. “We have had such support from the community,” says Hager. Cross Lanes is not an incorporated city (i.e., it receives no city funds), “so everything that happens has to happen through volunteers.”
Eighteen years ago, this town saw occupational therapy and a new type of baseball collide, providing incalculable benefits for the players and community alike. As Coach Hager says, “I feel so lucky and so blessed to have been in the right place at the right time.”
Ashley Opp is AOTA’s production editor.