Let’s start with the helmet/mask as it’s arguably the most important piece from a safety perspective.
Types of catcher’s helmets
The first thing to know about a catcher’s helmet is that there are two types.
The first is the traditional (read: old-school) two-piece mask. It typically consists of a batting helmet or skull cap worn backward and a separate mask strapped over the top. The mask itself is a metal cage with foam padding that fits against the forehead and chin.
As adults, this is probably the type of mask we have in mind.
For the most part, these traditional masks are on their way out. They’re being replaced by a newer, more protective style modeled after a hockey goalie helmet. This style was first used by Charlie O’Brien, catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1996.
When you look at a catcher wearing a two-piece mask, you can see the ears and side of the head are completely exposed, leaving them dangerously vulnerable to foul balls or a hitter’s backswing.
Why would anyone still wear the two-piece style then?
Some say it’s easier to throw off in the heat of the moment when scrambling for the ball in the dirt or trying to catch a foul ball behind the plate. Others say that they’re cooler and more ventilated, especially important in the heat of the summer faced with a double-header.
However, as advancements are made in helmet technology, improvements to the hockey-style mask are rendering many of these arguments mute.
Parts of the Mask
Now, when choosing a catcher’s helmet, it’s important to consider the different parts that contribute to safety, comfort, and fit.
First, there’s the mask itself.
This should be made of steel or other metal that is strong enough to withstand being hit by a bat or ball. If you’re buying a used helmet, you want to make sure there aren’t any dents or dings in the metal part of the mask.
You also want to make sure that the mask provides good visibility, both in front and peripherally. Most hockey-style masks now curve around the side of the face to improve visibility in all directions. Since the hockey style mask is harder to throw off, it’s important to have excellent visibility with it on.
Another consideration is the material of the shell (which is just a fancy way of saying the outside of the helmet). This should typically be made of a type of high impact plastic or polycarbonate. As with the mask, you want it to be strong but light.
The padding on the inside of the mask is another important component. It contributes significantly to comfort, and it’s critical to absorb impact and prevent concussions and head injuries. There’s a wide variety of foams and other padding materials used in the catcher’s helmets. You want something that can absorb the most impact and feel comfortable on your child’s head. You also want the helmet to fit with the padding as it comes. Adding padding to the helmet can interfere with the way the helmet is supposed to work.
Finally, you’ll need to consider the size and fit of the helmet. This can be difficult because size can vary between brands. Some will offer broad-sized categories like youth/intermediate/adult, while others will be sized like batting helmets using head sizes. The majority of hockey-style helmets have a backplate with straps that can further adjust the fit.
Importance of the right fit
Getting the catcher’s helmet to fit properly is of utmost importance. You want the helmet to fit snug, like a baseball cap, but not so tight that it’s uncomfortable. When your child tries it on, the helmet/mask should move with their head and should not bounce around. Resist the urge to buy it a little big for them to grow into. This is one piece of equipment that needs to fit properly in order to provide the most protection.
How to measure for the right helmet
Finding the right size of a catcher’s helmet is as easy as trying it on.
Start with measuring your child’s head circumference. You can do this by using a soft measuring tape. Or you can use a string, yarn, or rope and then measure it against a tape measure or yardstick.
Catcher’s helmet manufacturers use non-standard size charts (much like women’s jeans). Some use head circumference, some just “helmet size”, and some just go with age recommendations.
So the only reliable way to know what size your kid’s helmet actually is, is by physically trying it on.
Take to a sporting goods store to try on a variety of styles and helmets. Even if they don’t have the helmet that you want, you can narrow down sizes and rule things out.
Another great thing to do is to have your child try on their teammates helmets. If there’s already a few kids on the team with gear, ask if they can wear it for a bit during practice. That’s even better than trying it on in the store because they can actually feel what it’s like to catch and throw with it on.
What features should you look for in a good catcher’s helmet
The most important features in a catcher’s helmet are safety, comfort, and fit.
Is it Safe?
Now, when it comes to our kids, we can all agree that safety is the top priority. The hockey style helmet wins this category hands down over the traditional mask. Not all hockey style helmets are the same though so you need to consider the materials used for the mask, shell, and especially the padding.
To help clear the waters when it comes to safety, you can look for certification by NOCSAE, which stands for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
If a helmet is approved by NOCSAE, it will have the logo stamped on the outer shell. NOCSAE approval is required by various leagues including the NFHS and NCAA.
Is it Comfortable?
Next comes comfort. Your kid’s going to be spending a lot of time in this helmet, sweating through doubleheaders on hot summer days. It needs to feel good, not like something they can’t wait to rip off.
Unfortunately, your child needs to figure it out on their own. You can read a hundred articles and select the best helmet known to man, but if it’s “uncomfortable,” they’re not going to wear it.
It can take some trial and error to get this part right. As we mentioned before, have them try it on at the store or practice. And once you buy the helmet, have them wear it outside for a catch to make sure it passes the kid-comfort test.
Does it Really Fit?
The final feature when buying a catcher’s helmet is the fit. It needs to fit just right to work properly and provide protection. The helmet should fit snugly but not too tight, and it should give good vision both in front and peripherally.
Finally, the helmet should stay in place when the kid moves around. It should not bounce or slant.
What is the best catcher’s helmet for my sport?
Hopefully, this information has demystified the many choices involved in selecting a catcher’s helmet for your child. Just remember to look for a hockey-style helmet, NOCSAE certified, made with high quality, impact padding. This combination will keep them safe (like you want) and comfortable (like they want). And if you still feel overwhelmed, take a breath and remind yourself that there’s no crying in baseball.