Ethan Bryan on Lessons From Playing Catch and the Importance of Play

October 27, 2020 Updated: October 27, 2020

Every day for 366 days in a row, rain or shine, or in freezing wind, Ethan Bryan played catch. He played catch with friends new and old, with his daughters, with other great fans of baseball, with people who had never played catch, with people from around the world with whom he didn’t share a language but could still communicate and connect through playing catch.

It was such a fun experience, such an amazing experience meeting so many new people, hearing so many new stories—it’s such a life-giving experience, going outside and engaging in physical activity, and really connecting deeply with people,” said Bryan, who’s a storyteller at heart. “I found out that we all have a lot in common.”

Bryan, a Missouri-based author, started blogging about his spontaneously dreamed-up project—to play catch every day throughout 2018 from the time he received a baseball from one of his daughters as a gift. (Had she not agreed to play catch with him that New Year’s Day, the project wouldn’t have happened.) That night at the dinner table, the family talked about resolutions, and Bryan thought, well, why not resolve to play every day?

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Bryan on day 1 of his year of playing catch, with his younger daughter Sophie. (Courtesy of Ethan Bryan)

It took less than a week for Bryan to make a solid commitment to it; and with every game of catch, he would give it his all. He never wanted to just go through the motions; he wanted to honor the commitment, and honor whoever was giving him their time to play catch together (“Here’s a resolution that you need to have someone else to complete, which is just hilarious anyway,” he said).

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Cold weather did not dampen Ethan Bryan’s resolve to play catch every day of the year. On day 16, he played with Joshua Kennedy at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame despite -15F degree windchills. (Jamie Bryan)

Around day 70, a writer friend told Bryan that his blog really seemed like a book. Bryan then wrangled hundreds of stories into one, his recently published “A Year of  Playing Catch.”

“Going into it with that attitude of not going through the motions really emphasized that connection that we’re all missing when we just quickly respond to a text, quickly respond to an email—that play-centered story-sharing, that changed my life, it was wonderful,” Bryan said.

By the end of 2018, the Bryan family had driven 12,000 miles around the country to play catch with a total of 530 people. It wasn’t the first time Bryan’s written about baseball, or traveled to play catch with strangers and share stories. Bryan has written fiction, based on life, and non-fiction stories that revolve around baseball and catch in the past, including documenting baseball stories from everyday people in every state in “America at the Seams.”

Bryan has loved baseball since he was practically a toddler; for years, his dream was playing for the Kansas City Royals.

It emphasizes individual effort and team effort. You can’t do it by yourself but individual contribution makes a difference. It is a game of horrible failure, over and over, and you have to have courage—you know, you strike out three times, let’s get in the batter’s box one more time and see what happens this time,” he said.

“It’s a game of hope and not giving up, and I think that’s what really resonates most deeply to me. It is a game that brings people together, where you are cheering on your teammates, to overcome their failures.”

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Playing catch on day 152 with Mary Moore, who formerly played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Real Bonds and Connections

There is something transcendent about sports and sports stories, connecting us to something bigger.

Early on in the project, local media covered Bryan’s resolution of playing a game of catch every day of the year, and the story got picked up by other media. Invitations to play also came pouring in. Bryan remembered that his wife was baffled, and asked why so many people were so interested in someone playing catch. He thought that was a good question.

One of Bryan’s favorite words is “friend,” and he made hundreds of friends that year.

With people who had never picked up a baseball before, they would start small and throw underhand, and move farther apart as they got comfortable, and end their games with smiles and heartfelt thanks for playing. Some had played in high school, or were Bryan’s parents’ age and had played and shared it was their favorite thing to do. Bryan would ask why they agreed to play catch with a stranger, and discover what they had in common, and what their hopes and dreams were. Bryan’s year, and book, was filled with deeply genuine stories.

“There’s something about this physical activity, and it takes both sides of your brain to coordinate your body catching throwing a ball, and so since your brain is so engaged in this activity now its gatekeepers have come down and it opens you up to real connection with the person,” Bryan said.  “And so I think these people who were so positive in their responses had at some point in their life experienced that connection.”

It was a year that strengthened family bonds, too.

From the very beginning, Bryan sat down with the family and talked about what this would look like; if it was going to work, it couldn’t come at the expense of straining his relationships with his wife and daughters. They talked over worst-case scenarios and ended up with some of the best-case scenarios.

During a fundraiser screening of “Field of Dreams” with the local theater for the local Miracle League, Bryan sat in the back of the auditorium, struck with inspiration at the road trip scene. He leaned over and whispered to his wife that they had to do a catch-playing road trip.

“I’d go play catch for an hour, and then we [had] the rest of the time [to] go do things together,” he said. “It was a wonderful way to get us out of our routines and go to places we never would have gone.

“Driving from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of Iowa in one day was a long stretch, but we laughed and we told stories and we took breaks and we saw scenery out the window. It was good to be able to undertake such an amazing year with my wife and daughters.”

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On day 271, Bryan played catch with his older daughter Kaylea before her homecoming dance. (Jamie Bryan)
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Bryan on day 279 with comedians Raj Suresh (L) and Tim Northern (C). (Courtesy of Ethan Bryan)

The Power of Play

The morning before Bryan spoke to The Epoch Times by phone, he played catch again with someone he hadn’t seen in two years. His playing partner had already had a rough morning, but as they threw the ball and talked about dreams and life and their children, he told Bryan what a reset the game was and how it had helped him have a better day.

Bryan has long believed in the importance of play. One of his playing partners was a professor who then introduced him to the Institute of Play and a wealth of research on its benefits.

The things that I was learning through playing catch, about perseverance, about community, about developing better communication and empathy and hope, about adaptability and how this wired my brain for curiosity, to really know the other person, these are all things we learn when we play,” Bryan said.

“She pointed me in the direction of the research, that what I had been experiencing firsthand had been proven through research over and over again.

“As we age, we have to be intentional about creating a space to play.”

Through play, learning to deal with difficult things like adversity, and developing resilience, take on a layer of fun.

“There were hard things,” Bryan said. “We really had to work to make it happen. Someone had to cancel, or weather was horrible, because that’s what Springfield, Missouri, was known for, so you had to get creative in how you went about it.”

There was that day when he was going to play catch with the local fire chief, who had a really limited window of time, and it was pouring sheets of rain. They ended up playing under the covered drive-through area of a bank.

At the very beginning of Bryan’s project, ice covered the roads and the wind chill was 15 degrees below zero, but a dear friend of his was determined to help him see his resolution through.

“We had so many layers on,” Bryan said. But it created a great memory for the two of them, one that they still talk about two years later. 

In fact, Jan. 2, 2019, was the first day he hadn’t played catch since the inaugural New Year’s Day game with his daughter. That day, as he sat and thought about it, he felt a sense of loss.

“Physical disciplines really shape a person, and I really, really missed it,” he said. “I think that kind of points fingers at how powerful play is, and how important play is in our lives.

“As we get older, it’s really easy to let all of life’s responsibilities just press in and weigh us down like groceries, dishes, bills, homework, school, jobs, and all the responsibilities that come with being adults, but it really is imperative that we not just find time to play but that we intentionally create space to play. Because we can’t be fully human apart from play. When we stop playing, there’s a part of us that dies.

“We really live in a play-deprived society, especially as we get older. It’s best seen in how we treat strangers, how we treat those who disagree with us, how we respond when faced with adversity and challenges.

“It’s play that helps keep that hopeful optimism, that helps find that reserve of courage and strength to press on when life gets hard.”

Perseverance, Hopes, and Dreams

Bryan was 4 years old when he attended his first baseball game, and for as long as he can remember his dream was to play for the Kansas City Royals. But he quit playing baseball at 16, before hitting his growth spurt. Looking back, Bryan says he gave up too easily on something that was supposed to have been his dream for most of his life.

When he finished playing a year of catch, one of the big revelations he had was that, this time, he hadn’t given up.

“It’s OK to work hard to make dreams come true, and I guess that’s what I wish I could tell 16-year-old me, which is don’t be afraid of the hard work you have to do, of the good that can come of it,” Bryan said. “For so many years I would joke about, hey I’d love to do play catch with somebody, and I’d just say it, but then I’d never do anything about it. So go do something about it, make some phone calls, send some emails, you’ll get somebody to say yes and it’ll be worth it.”

It was a year of living out his values, and conscious that now his own daughters were watching. For Christmas, they both wrote him letters about that year of adventure, and what watching him taught them. They shared realizations of the importance of play, connection, and good memories, about the importance of curiosity, perseverance, and being present. “You’ve shown that to me time and time again, and I appreciate it,” reads one letter, included in the book.

Bryan is a firm believer in living out a good story, and that each of our stories can impact others. “The goal is to live our story in such a way that it inspires and helps others to live their best story,” he said. His perseverance this time around certainly would have inspired his 16-year-old self.

Aside from the sense of accomplishment he felt after finishing the year, Bryan also realized he physically felt so much better. The sense of loss from not playing catch every day didn’t last long—now Bryan is playing baseball. All that catch rekindled his 16-year-old dreams, and he made the local semi-professional league, where he’s currently playing his second season.

“So I get to introduce myself as a baseball player! It’s a joy,” he said.

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Ethan Bryan currently plays ball in the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League for the Ozark Mountain Ducks. (Mike Hudgens Photography)
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In his teens, Bryan had put his dreams of playing baseball on hold. He decided to get into the sport again after his experiment; he now plays for the Ozark Mountain Ducks. (Courtesy of Ethan Bryan)
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After 11 innings, the Ozark Mountain Ducks of the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League won the last game of their season on Oct. 25, 2020. (Courtesy of Ethan Bryan)