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Too many overuse injuries among youth baseball pitchers

Posted by John Reed on

There is a long-overdue article about youth baseball pitchers’ arm and shoulder injuries in today’s Wall Street Journal: “The Rise of Overuse Injuries in Youth Baseball.”
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Youth sports have what I call stage fathers—the male counterpart to the stage mom. That is a parent who is overly determined to see the child become a star, sort of the performing arts equivalent of the more academically-oriented Tiger Mom.
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I coached about 20 youth baseball teams and was player-manager of a couple of semi-pro teams. I also wrote two books about youth baseball coaching. http://www.johntreed.com/…/john-t-reed-s-baseball-coaching-…
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I also have a broad web article on the outrageous state of amateur baseball safety at http://www.johntreed.com/…/63388291-it-s-child-endangerment…
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Many, maybe most, athletic stage fathers believe that the main key to becoming a college or pro star is outworking the competition. Outworking the competition is a key if you are an adult coach in a coachable sport like football. (My oldest son was an Ivy League tailback who was recruited by Columbia, Dartmouth, and Yale. He played all four years at Columbia.)
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Children are different. True, increasing practice time does improve their performance, but it is not linear in every aspect of the sport. Baseball is largely a zen sport which means some huge breakthroughs in performance happen as a result of a flash of insight. The succinct statement of zen is “Don’t make it happen. Let it happen.” In baseball, that applies to full-swing hitting (not bunting or the fake bunt and slash), throwing accurately, pitching, fielding a hot grounder in the infield. Other skills like baserunning, playing outfield, bunting, catching balls other than hot infield grounders are not zen—trying harder generally produces better results in those skills.
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But kids have different anatomies and brains. At the end of child bones is a growth plate. Full-grown adults have no such plates. Over-use injuries to those plates are permanent, incurable injuries. As a result, children and their coaches and parents must be careful to avoid overuse of any joints.
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The American Medical Association years ago said no child below age 13 should play the same sport year-round. At the time, I said there was no medical basis for that age cutoff and accused the AMA of playing politics, i.e., not wanting the piss off the stage fathers of teenage athletes.
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Dr. James Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon who is chairman of the American Sports Medicine Institute now says the cutoff is before you are a senior in high school. That’s better, and I’m not a doctor, but I think the only scientifically valid cutoff is when the child no longer has growth plates, which varies from individual to individual but generally does not occur until college age.
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Senior year of high school sounds political to me. It is the year when college coaches decide whether to recruit or not.
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Another issue is the brain of children. The AMA said another reason for their position against year-round playing of the same sport by a child is burnout. My sons’ swim teacher had been an Olympic hopeful as a child. And she spent many hours per day practicing. Then one day in her early teens she informed her parents and coach that she was totally fed up with devoting so much of her life to swimming and quit cold turkey.
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Before our first son was born, my wife and I discussed how we would handle it if any of our children seems like they might be great swimmers or ice skaters or gymnasts or tennis players—sports where the peak age is relatively young. We decided that we would simply refuse to go there on the grounds that you would never do it unless the child wanted it—and you cannot tell if the child is telling the truth when they sense that the parents and coach want the kid to pursue Olympic or pro gold. Indeed, our swim teacher said she always said yes whenever she was asked if all the hard work was what she wanted—until the day she said, “No mas.”
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When my oldest was around 9, I asked him once if there was anything he wanted in swimming—he was competing on our country club team. To our surprise, he said he wanted to break the team record in breast stroke, his best stroke. It happened that one of the teenage coaches on the team was the holder of that record. So we paid a little extra to have that coach give Dan one-on-one lessons.
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Dan set a new team record and as of a year or so ago, it was still the record—the second oldest record on the board. The oldest was held by a kid who later became a minor league pro baseball player. Dan is now 34. It was an age 10 record. We are glad we got him those lessons.
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But he also was asked to switch from the country club to the traveling, more competitive team. We said no. So did he. Among other things, it required early-morning, outdoor practices year round during school days. CA weather is mild but not so mild that you would enjoy swimming outdoors at 6 AM in January. We are glad about that decision, too.
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He played football, baseball, and track. I ruled out any winter sport because I wanted a season off as a parent. Maybe that was not the right decision.
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We had three sons. All did sports initially, but the two younger ones lost interest during elementary or high school.
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I would be curious as to what former child athletes think about the full-time, live with the coach, year-round stage parent commitment, especially those who fell short of the Olympic or college teams. I suspect that level of effort violates child labor laws in both sprit and the letter of the law and that there is no medical or mental health distinction between child labor of the factory or farm variety and child labor of the seven hours of sports practice per day.

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