This past weekend, I lectured in a local Little League coaches’ clinic. Another presenter and I discussed topics such as injury prevention, management of acute injuries on the field, and overuse injuries. I was a little nervous at first to be “the bad guy” lecturing on limiting pitch counts, etc. in order to prevent overuse injuries in these adolescent baseball players. We know that as kids are playing year-rounds sports these days, they are at higher risk for certain elbow and shoulder injuries, especially those that involve the growth plates. Overuse leads to injury. The coaches had to attend this clinic; it wasn’t voluntary. I was sure the first thing on their mind wasn’t elbow pain but how to win games. What I ended up seeing, however, was a real concern on the coaches’ behalf for the same issues. When I asked for questions from the audience at the end, instead I received comments such as “You know, it’s usually the parents that ignore the pitch counts.” Or “We limit throwing in practice according to the guidelines, but the dads continue to throw with the kids when they’re at home.” Now, we’ve all seen or heard about those fanatical parents who have little Billy in every league possible, bragging about how he’s got the best batting average on his team in all 4 leagues. They think little Billy is going to be the next A-Rod. Guess what, folks? He probably won’t be. But try telling that to mom and dad. No, seriously. Try. Because they won’t listen to me.
I frequently have this discussion with my fiancé, who played professional baseball for almost 5 years. The interesting thing is that he didn’t play on a travel league until he was 17. As an adolescent, he didn’t play year-round, and his parents didn’t pay hundreds of dollars for a biomechanical evaluation of his swing. He didn’t field grounders all night long because he dreamed of a multi-million dollar deal one day. He did it because he loved it. I reminded my sister of this last year when she was hauling her two sons (then ages 8 and 10) around to baseball games for different leagues all weekend. In addition to their summer “optimist” league, they were playing in a travel league, complete with personalized bat bags and helmets. Lo and behold, one of them got burnt out on the sport. Now he doesn’t play at all. I can’t imagine how much more quickly that would have happened if he were playing year-round like these kids in south Florida.
Which leads me to ask, why? Why are these kids playing year round at such an early age? Why are they throwing so much without giving their arms time to rest? Do they love it that much? Do mom and dad tell them this is how they’re going to get ahead? Do they really think they’re giving little Billy the chance to earn millions one day? At the end of the day, a child’s talent is going to manifest itself on its own. If Billy has natural talent, it won’t matter if he starts playing at age 13 versus age 6. It won’t matter if he has the best coaches or the best equipment, because you can’t coach power and you can’t coach speed. What does matter is the rising number of overuse injuries we’re seeing in these adolescent athletes. Their growing bodies are simply not made to withstand the physical stresses they are experiencing. Long-term data is forthcoming, but this is what I’d like to see: how many of these kids who have an overuse injury during their growing years actually end up playing in the big leagues? My educated guess is not many. But until parents understand that, their children will continue to suffer needless injuries chasing that dream.