Ah, baseball the great American pastime. Just hearing the word brings thoughts of peanuts, Cracker Jacks, and choruses of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
But it’s hard to talk about baseball without mentioning one of the most hardcore—and most important—positions in the game: pitcher. Only 60 feet separate a pitcher from his opponent, and the pitcher’s task is just as mentally taxing as it is physically demanding. Here, however, we’ll focus on the physical demands and how to prevent physical injury in young pitchers.
1. Pitching Preparation
Just as you wouldn’t expect a young athlete to sprint a marathon without any training, beginning pitchers can’t be expected to throw at full speed without proper conditioning and form. For young players, this prep time can often can feel like biology class—an eternity. But establishing good habits while a pitcher is young can lead to longevity and success. Steven Ellis, a retired professional pitcher, told youthpitching.com that a young pitcher should be gradually conditioned “before throwing a full velocity pitch.” Ellis also stressed the importance of proper stretching and warming up before pitching to help prevent injury. Preach, Ellis. Preach!
2. Open Communication
Young pitchers often feel a lot of pressure to close out games and perform flawlessly for their team. This stress can be dangerous if a young athlete doesn’t listen to the signs their body gives them and instead plays through the pain.
One of the best things parents and coaches can do to prevent this is create a culture of open communication with the athlete (you know, like, one where they actually talk to each other).
Be sure your athlete knows that their health is your main concern and that they should speak up if they experience persistent or abnormal pain. In this way, communication is one of the keys to preventing injury.
If you really want to make an impact, you could always take things to the next level by teaching young athletes the Roxette hit song, “Listen to Your Heart,” then swapping out the word heart for “arm.” Catchy, right? Sorta? Ok ... maybe that’s taking things too far. You decide.
3. Follow the Pitch Count Guidelines
Over working any arm can cause damage, but overexposing a young athlete’s arm can cause serious long-term problems. We strongly recommend taking a look at the Little League pitching guidelines, which help protect young pitchers by giving insightful information on rest and recovery protocols.
For example, if a pitcher who is 14 or younger throws 66 pitches or more, they are strongly advised to rest for four days. A pitcher between the ages of 15-16 can push that limit to 76 pitches, but then also needs four days of rest.Cue the music “Listen to your heart arm when it’s calling for you … ”
One common solution to help pitchers stay healthy is to let them play other positions. Not only will a pitcher benefit from the conditioning that comes with that, but they will also benefit from seeing the game through a different lens. It’s one thing to have a great arm, but when you couple that with a high baseball IQ, look out!
This might also encourage your athlete to confide in you when their arm is hurting. If they know they’ll still get to play, taking time to rest their arm might not seem so bad.
5. Take a Few Months Off
Sports medicine expert Dr. David Geier believes young athletes—especially pitchers—can benefit greatly from taking a few months off at the end of a long season. He explains on his website, “I think that the transition to year-round baseball has certainly played a role in the increased incidence of shoulder and elbow injuries in young pitchers.”
He continued, “Instead of playing different sports in different seasons, now kids can play for different baseball teams throughout the year, year after year. This concentration on one sport leads to continued stress on growing shoulders and elbows with no rest. They should take three consecutive months off each year. They can play other sports, but I would encourage them to play sports that don’t stress the shoulder and elbow, such as soccer or other non-throwing sports.”
The longevity and prosperity of any young athlete should be a main focus for coaches, athletic directors, and parents. By following these tips, you can help prevent injury in young pitchers.
Do it to it!