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7 Steps to Have a Long Baseball Career

Most of us are here because of our shared love for one thing: baseball. Throughout our careers, we all grow to appreciate the little things: the smell of freshly cut grass, the pop of the catcher’s mitt, and taking in the view from the dugout, eager to put life’s troubles aside for the next few hours.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t get to experience these things forever.

So why do we end up parting ways with the game we love? The end of the road usually comes down to one of three things: injury, burnout, or you weren’t good enough to compete at the next level.

 

7 Steps to Have a Long Baseball Career

To help those who’ve had to prematurely walk away from doing what they love most, this article will go over how you can put building blocks in place from when you were playing on your local Little League team all the way through the professional level to ensure your longevity in the game.

 

Little League Building Blocks 

Play Other Sports

Little League and youth baseball are incredible for teaching children the rules of the game. More importantly, it gives kids an opportunity to develop a passion for baseball and associate feelings of joy, fun, and happiness with the diamond.

At the same time, it’s crucial that kids also participate in a variety of other sports.

Early specialization is real, and high-strung parents have no problem locking their child into one sport so they have a shot at a college scholarship. Kids need both physical and mental variability, and exposing them to multiple sports will satisfy both of those needs.

Step one for longevity on the diamond: Play more than just baseball during your Little League years.

Practice Gross Motor Skills, Coordination, and Agility

Prepubescent athletes don’t need to be partaking in a full fledge strength and conditioning program.

Firstly, they don’t have the hormones needed to reap the benefits of heavy resistance training, and secondly, they probably don’t need rigid constraints placed on how they should move.

But, early childhood is a critical period for an athlete to develop good motor skills, coordination, and agility. Because of a child’s plasticity and sensitivity to advancing their motor development, these years are a great time for them to practice moving their bodies in a variety of ways to help integrate visual, vestibular, and somatosensory information.

This will help give them a stronger base to work from later on in their athletic career.

 

High School Building Blocks

Get a Movement Assessment

These are the years when an athlete is constantly trying to adjust to their growing body, is probably playing in more games per year, and may be starting to lift weights.

For all those reasons, it’s now time to start making movement assessments a must.

Because of one’s athletic history, body type, and anatomy movement, compensations may start to rear their ugly head. Finding a quality physical therapist and strength coach who can identify where you move well/poorly and develop a plan to help you mitigate injuries is invaluable.

A well-done assessment will not only show you what you’re good and not good at, it will also direct how you train, warm-up, and even what throwing program is best for you. Get assessments early, often, and make it habit throughout your career.

Begin a Structured Strength & Conditioning Program 

When an athlete reaches puberty they have the hormonal capabilities to increase their muscle mass, strength, and power, and participating in a strength and conditioning program will help accomplish all three. Piggybacking off of the last building block, baseball is a unique sport; the repetitiveness of throwing and hitting, and the demands those two actions place on the body, mean that any old football or bodybuilding program won’t suffice for maximizing your performance and keeping you healthy. Find someone who knows the body and knows baseball, then begin making an individualized strength and conditioning program part of your routine.

 

College Building Blocks

Master Time Management

If you’ve made it to the collegiate level you’ve shown that your skills are above and beyond those possessed by the majority of your peers.

Your lack of skills or physicality often isn’t what breaks you at this level; it’s the pressures of having to manage multiple aspects of your life that will hurt your performance.

In high school, you go to school from 8-2, practice and play, go home and eat mom’s cooking, and repeat. You now have to go to multiple classes, study, cook, do your laundry, pay for things yourself, and, on top of that, practice and play.

If you want to be successful at this level and prolong your career, you must develop good organizational skills, learn to make lists, and manage your time.

Become a Creature of Habit

Each ensuing year after high school will become more stressful. You’ll have more responsibilities and the pressure to perform well will continuously increase as you get closer to competing at the next level.

Creating routines and good habits are critical to help minimize stress and set yourself up for success. Creating routines for how you go about your studies, practice, nutrition, training, and mental preparation will allow you to block out unnecessary stress and keep you focused on reaching your goals on the field.

 

Professional Building Blocks

Learn to Love Recovery

By the time you’ve reached the professional level your body will have accumulated a lot of games played or innings thrown–and you’ll want to have many more in your future.

With that said, prioritizing recovery will greatly enhance your chance at having a successful career.

Fitting so many games into such few months means you must learn what your body needs to help your muscles and nervous system recover to the best of their ability every day. Below is a list of common recovery modalities that can be of great help while enduring long seasons:

  • Manual Therapy
  • Mobility Training
  • Improving Quality/Quantity of Sleep
  • Meeting with a Registered Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Limit Alcohol Consumption
  • Self-Myofascial Release
  • Active Recovery Training
  • Cryotherapy
  • Contrast Therapy
  • Sauna
  • Meditation

 

In Summary

Appreciate that being able to have longevity in any sport is a gift – but a gift you can exercise control over.

Respect your body as much as you respect the game and you’ll find you won’t have to prematurely walk away from doing what you love.

If you’re a parent reading this, how can you set your kid(s) up for success? If you’re a coach, how can you get the most out of your high school athletes? And if you’re a college or professional player, how badly do you want to get to the next level and how much are you willing to sacrifice to get there?

Put the right building blocks in place and the game will be good to you.

 

 

10 Recommendations to Reduce Youth Throwing Injuries

For anyone who is interested in youth baseball or softball, I urge you to pay attention to some of the data regarding youth throwing injuries.  Some of the numbers are staggering. I would like to make this entire post HIGHLY based in the available research and evidence – not my opinions.

I am basically summarizing what has been researched and published in this post. Of course, I will elaborate on a few things along the way, but I will mostly let the data speak for itself.
Let’s start with a little background:

  • Baseball/softball remains one of the safest overall sports to play
  • Nevertheless, traumatic and overuse injuries occur regularly
  • More and more young boys and girls are playing baseball/softball every year
  • Despite pitch count rules, the incidence of youth injuries and surgeries is rising
  • Adult throwing injuries are being attributed to injuries suffered as youths

 

The Rise of Youth Baseball Injuries

There is no denying the youth baseball injuries are rising. Below, I have summarized several research publications.  During the 5 years from 1994-1999 compared the 5 years from 2000-2004:

  • 4x increase in elbow surgeries in college baseball pitchers
  • 6x increase in elbow surgeries in high school baseball pitchers
  • 5x increase for injury with pitching >8 months/year
  • 4x increase for injury with pitching >80 pitches/game
  • 2.5x increase for injury with throwing >85 MPH
  • 36x increase for injury when throwing with arm fatigue
  • Injured pitchers threw 34 warm-up pitches vs. 26 warm-up pitches of un-injured pitchers
  • Injured pitchers threw in 4 showcases vs. 1 showcase of un-injured
  • Injured pitchers were 4cm taller and 5kg heavier

In 2006, 450 players (ages 7-11) without elbow pain pre-season:

  • 30.5% reported elbow pain by end of season…of those, 72.3% had physical exam deficits…of those, 81.4% had radiographic abnormalities. This basically means kids with elbow pain actually had pathology, not just soreness!
  • “Little League Elbow” – epicondylitis, apophysitis, physeal plate (growth plate) fracture, osteochondritis dissecans occurs in 20-40% of school aged pitchers

A 10-year study (from 1999-2008) 481 pitchers (ages 9-14) with an elbow injury defined as surgery or retirement due to pain:

  • Pitching >100 innings/year = 3.5x more likely to be injured
  • Playing pitcher and catcher – 2.5x more likely to be injured

A 2015 study on 420 healthy pitchers:

  • 31% had a pitching-related injury (shoulder and elbow)…of those, 3 variables could predict injury 77% of the time
  • Pitcher height
  • Pitching velocity
  • Pitching for more than one team

A 10-year study from 2002-2011 in New York State:

  • There was a significant increase in the number of UCL reconstructions by 193%
  • Becoming more common in adolescent athletes
  • The average age at surgery going down = more kids are having Tommy John surgery at an earlier age

Dr. James Andrews – arguably the most prolific orthopedic surgeon of this era – has presented numerous times throughout his career about his concerns regarding youth injuries and increasing awareness…here is a graph showing the percentage of Tommy John’s surgeries he completes each year on youth (compared to collegiate and professional athletes):

Recommendations – Pitch Count & Playing Time

Through the combined efforts of many people, including Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig of ASMI, organizations like Little League Baseball and USA Baseball have adopted rules to help reduce overuse.

Our understanding the stresses placed on the arm, especially while pitching, has led to the institution of rules controlling the quantity of pitches thrown in youth baseball and established rest periods between pitching assignments.

Little League Baseball & USA Baseball have implemented the following pitch count recommendations:

  • 9-10 years of age: 1000/season, 2000/year
  • 11-12 years of age: 1000/season, 3000/year
  • 13-14 years of age: 1000/season, 3000/year
  • Pitcher-to-catcher ban: any pitcher who throws >41 pitches may not play catcher that day

Recommendations – Throwing Guidelines

In addition to the above pitch count rules, several other guidelines can be implemented based on what we have learned through scientific research:

  • Avoid pitching with arm fatigue!
  • Avoid pitching with arm pain
  • Pitch less than 80 pitches/game at ALL adolescent levels
  • Pitch less than 8months out of the year
  • Pitch less than 100 innings in games in any calendar year.
  • Pitch less than 2000-3000 pitches in competition/year (pending age)

The Ongoing Problem

Travel ball does not fall under the umbrella of Little League and USA Baseball and is often under the sole direction of the team and coach. This had led to continued overuse despite the best efforts of the medical community.

A recent national survey of 750 pitchers (ages 9-18) shows:

  • 45% of youth pitchers pitched without a pitch count
  • 43.5% pitched on consecutive days
  • 30.7% pitched on multiple teams
  • 19.0% pitched multiple games in one day
  • 13.2% pitched year-round
  • ~1/3 having a pitching-related injury in the past 12 months,
  • 7/10 reported significant arm tiredness in the past 12 months
  • Nearly 40 percent reported significant arm pain within the past 12 months.
    • Arm Tiredness = 7.8x more likely to have an injury

 

The Impact of Long Toss and Pitch Type

In addition to simple overuse in throwing volume, there are other factors to consider such as long toss and pitch type.

What About Long Toss?

  • 2011 Study = Hard, flat-ground throws have biomechanical patterns similar to pitching; however, maximum distance throws produce increased torque & changes kinematics. Therefore, use caution with use of these longer throws in rehab & training

What about flat ground vs. mound pitching?

  • 2013 Study = “There is NO difference in kinematics or kinetics in pitching from a mound versus flat-ground conditions in adolescent baseball pitchers.”

What about curveballs, sliders, fastballs & change ups?

  • In multiple studies (2002, 2006, 2008, 2011) = conflicting information…
  • Most indicate fastballs have a greater overall torque on the shoulder and elbow than any other pitch
  • However, what has been shown in some studies curveballs elicit more force through the shoulder whereas the slider places greater forces through the elbow
  • The changeup is consistently shown in virtually all research to have the least amount of forces (shoulder AND elbow)
  • None of the players in several studies threw anything but fastballs or changeups, so the information is lacking

How to Prevent Youth Throwing Injuries

There is overwhelming evidence that volume and overuse are single-handedly a major contributing factor to injuries in youth baseball. This is hard to deny. Throwing with pain and/or fatigue is the fastest way to be injured. You must listen to your body. Injuries are not always seen “in season” but the cumulative effects can negatively affect the long-term health of a pitcher. Pitch type is not as big of a concern; however, most youth do not have the appropriate control, body awareness/motor control and mechanics to throw efficiently and effectively, therefore breaking pitches are underemphasized early in youth pitching.

10 Recommendations to Reduce Youth Throwing Injuries

  1. Watch and respond to signs of fatigue:
    • Decreased ball velocity, decreased accuracy, upright trunk during pitching, dropped elbow during pitching, or increased time between pitches). If a youth pitcher complains of fatigue or looks fatigued, rest is recommended
  2. No overhead throwing of any kind for at least 2-3 months per year. No competitive baseball pitching for at least 4 months per year
  3. Follow limits for pitch counts and days rest
  4. Avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons
  5. Learn good throwing mechanics as soon as possible. The first steps should be (1) basic throwing, (2) fastball pitching, (3) changeup pitching…breaking pitches are not fundamental and youth players need foundation first
  6. A pitcher should not also be a catcher for his team. The pitcher-catcher combination results in many throws and may increase the risk of injury
  7. If a pitcher complains of pain in his elbow or shoulder, discontinue pitching until evaluated by a sports medicine physician
  8. Avoid using radar guns and emphasizing velocity with youth throwers
  9. Minimize showcases, especially in the “off” season
  10. Inspire youth pitchers to have fun playing baseball and other sports. Participation and enjoyment of various physical activities will increase the youth’s athleticism and interest in sports

 

Closing Thoughts

I threw a lot of information at you. But you can use this as a resource in the future. I want everyone to understand NONE of these are rules…just guidelines/suggestions.

But I am not talking about my opinion or something I saw or heard or know a guy who said something I thought made sense. It is research. Actual evidence. Measurable data.

I am not here to start a debate or judge anyone for anything. I am simply packaging the best information I could gather and put it all in one place.

My final thought is this: I love baseball. I want you and your children to play baseball or softball. Let your kids be a part of arguably the greatest sport on the planet – a sport that has some of the best teaching lessons and analogies for life. Work hard to get better and be better. Strive for improvements. Just watch volume and be smart about things. Have a great season!

 

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References:

  1. American Academy of Pediatricians. Policy statement: baseball and softball. Pediatrics. 2012;129:e842-e856.
  2. American Sports Medicine Institute. Position statement for youth baseball pitchers. http://www.asmi.org/asmiweb/position_statement.htm Accessed March 10, 2016.
  3. Cain EL Jr, Andrews JR, Dugas JR, et al. Outcome of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction of the elbow in 1281 athletes: results in 743 athletes with minimum 2-year follow-up. Am J Sports Med. 2010;38:2426-2434.
  4. Chen FS, Rokito AS, Jobe FW. Medial elbow problems in the over head throwing athlete. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2001;9:99-113.
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  14. Little League Baseball. Protecting young pitching arms. http://www.littleleague.org/Assets/old_assets/media/pitch_count_publication_2008.pdf. Accessed February 12, 2016.
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  18. Stop Sports Injuries. http://www.stopsportsinjuries.org. Accessed on March 19, 2014
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