Pitching injuries across all levels of baseball are on the rise. There are many contributing factors like poor mechanics coupled with 100 mph fastballs. However, at the youth level, the single biggest contributor to arm injuries is pitching too much in games. If you are a parent or coach, you have the power to prevent, or contribute to, the problem.
Here are some facts to consider from the American Sports Medicine Institute:
- Pitchers who compete with fatigue are 36 times more likely to get injured.
- Competing in games more than 8 months per year increases the risk of injury by 5 times.
- Throwing more than 80 pitches in a game increases the risk of injury by nearly 4 times.
Here are 6 steps you can take, as a parent or coach, to reduce the risk of your young athletes getting hurt.
#1 Build a Foundation Early
One of the most impactful activities for the youngest baseball players is simply playing catch. A love for the game often starts with a father and son throwing a ball in the yard. When youngsters progress to playing in organized tee ball or coach pitch leagues, they learn to play catch with their peers. Even big leaguers play catch with their teammates on a daily basis. Parents and coaches should never lose sight of the importance of playing catch.
Coaches and parents should also sprinkle in teaching basic throwing mechanics as early as possible. Young players should first learn to step towards their intended target, take the ball out of their glove with the hand on top of the ball, and get their elbow up in a good throwing position. More advanced youth athletes can be taught the importance of maintaining a closed front shoulder to improve accuracy. And the most advanced youth players learn how to better use their lower body by leading with the front hip and maximizing hip-to-shoulder separation.
The final piece of a solid throwing foundation is to stretch out the arm through long toss. In general, players who throw the ball further, also throw the ball with more velocity. Long toss improves shoulder mobility, arm strength, throwing endurance, and overall arm health. Serious youth baseball players should long toss a minimum of 3 to 5 times per week during the season. Jaeger Sports has published an outstanding Year-Round Throwing Manual that we highly recommend.
#2 Practice More, Play Games Less
Adults love watching their children suit up in their cute uniforms and show off their skills to the crowd. In fact, many parents and coaches see no issue with 7-year-olds playing 3 or 4 games on a hot summer afternoon. Is this really what is best for your children’s long-term development? Do NCAA and MLB players play 3 games in one day?
Practice develops fundamental skills and confidence for young players. Low-pressure, fast-paced and fun practices get players many reps and ball touches. This is what is needed to develop skills and a love for the game. During many youth baseball games, some athletes get 1 at-bat and never see a ball hit in their direction. Also, the more games crammed into a day or week, the greater likelihood that pitchers will be overused leading to injury.
USA Baseball recommends a 3 to 1 practice-to-game ratio for all leagues up to 12 years old. Is your child’s league structured this way? If not, talk to league officials about the importance of more practice time and fewer games.
#3 Throw More, Pitch Less
A “win at all costs” mentality is ruining youth sports. In baseball, early maturing bigger and taller athletes dominate the position of pitcher. They pitch on back-to-back days or even in back-to-back games on the same day. Parents and coaches believe their child or athlete is different suggesting things like, “He has a rubber arm.”
Pitch Smart guidelines clearly outline recommended rest periods based on the number of pitches thrown each day. For athletes 12 and under, this should be considered the minimum amount of rest needed between games.
In between games, the arm does not need complete rest. Complete rest from throwing is rarely ever a good thing. Young athletes should be throwing regularly, not pitching, between games. Playing catch and long toss should be something done routinely to improve recovery between games. Again, long toss improves arm health, strength, and endurance. Don’t shut the arm down completely. It thrives on throwing.
#4 Warm Up to Throw, Don’t Throw to Warm Up
Athletes should never ever just pick up a ball and start throwing without warming their bodies up. Teach your athletes to always warm up before throwing. Throwing is not something serious players do to “get loose” or “warm up”. Throwing is an integral part of every baseball practice.
Baseball is predominately throwing, catching, and hitting. Catch and throw routines cover 2/3 of the game. Consider this your most important 20 minutes of practice.
Warm-up routines should be dynamic to prepare the body for practice. Include activities like walking lunges, skipping, broad jumps, cariocas, bear crawls, and short sprints. Also, be sure to include tons of arm circles to prepare the throwing arm. Don’t include static stretches that have a calming effect. These are best done outside of practice or after throwing.
#5 Train Athletes First, Pitchers Second
Pitching instruction and lessons are great to learn fundamental mechanics. We recommend serious youth baseball players learn from private coaches. However, over-coaching mechanics at an early age sometimes leads to a loss of athleticism.
Young players want to implement what they are being taught. Over-coaching athletes can lead to children throwing with conscious attention to how their body moves. The best athletes move and perform without conscious control. Their body self-organizes itself to complete the task at hand. It learns to do this automatically, usually after failing at the task many times.
Get young athletes involved in strength and conditioning programs as soon as they are mentally and emotionally ready. Some athletes as young as 7 years old are ready. Developing body control, strength, power, and speed helps athletes throw with less stress on their arms. Also, the benefits of playing multiple sports apply here.
#6 Help Players Develop an Arm Care Routine
Around the age of 11 or 12, serious baseball players should develop a regular arm care routine. This includes a personalized dynamic warm-up, arm care exercises, and sometimes manual therapy.
Jaeger Sports has an excellent arm care routine available on its website. Also, many other solid packaged programs exist. However, it is always best to develop your own set of arm care exercises. A physical therapist can help develop a program that addresses your unique needs and goals. Ideally, these exercises should be done 3 to 5 times per week for most months of the year.
As athletes get a little older, usually 13 or 14, they begin to develop mobility restrictions around their hips and shoulders. Loss of shoulder mobility is a risk factor for shoulder and elbow injuries in pitchers of all ages. Simple self-stretches are helpful but many athletes require hands-on treatment by a physical therapist, massage therapist, or athletic trainer.
BSR offers free evaluations for any athlete looking to develop an arm care routine or inquire about the benefits of manual therapy.
Parents and Coaches: Base Today’s Decisions on the Long-Term Health of Your Athlete
It is impossible to prevent all arm injuries from occurring. However, if you follow the 6 principles listed here, you are going to greatly reduce the risk of injury for your young athletes. The goal for every parent and coach should always be to develop healthy lifelong athletes who love to play the game of baseball. Contact your physical therapist if you would like help developing a plan for your athlete.