A few weeks ago, John Smoltz became the first pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. At the end of his speech he made a plea to parents and the emphasized need to take care of the arms of the future. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

In the speech, he summed up the biggest issue surrounding not just baseball, but all youth sports today: early specialization and year round competition in one sport. I understand why parents see the need for their kids to focus on one sport from an early age. Everyday there seems to be more competition for a starting position or a college scholarship. Everyday there are new travel teams popping up promoting the benefits of year round competition. Parents are scared into thinking that their children will fall behind if they do not play as much as possible. However, there are two main problems with early specialization and year round play: health concerns and enjoyment of the game. For these reasons, I believe most would be better off taking time away from the field.

1. Health

Every sport places unique demands on the body, but throwing a baseball is unlike any other motion in sports. The picture below illustrates that throwing a baseball is not the best thing for the long term health of our body.

With the amount of stress placed on the shoulder, elbow, and just about every other joint, the body needs time to recover. Over the course of the season, pitchers lose internal rotation of the shoulder, rotator cuff strength and timing, along with a whole host of other strength, mobility, and stability concerns.

According to a study done by Dr. James Andrew, the biggest risk factor of injury to a pitcher is throwing too much. Listed below are some of the findings of the study and the markers for increased chance of major elbow or shoulder surgery:

Pitching more than 100 innings/year: 3 x more likely to need surgery

Throwing 80+ pitches per game: 4x more likely to need surgery

Pitching competitivley for 8+ months/year: 5x more likely to need surgery

Pitching regularly with arm fatigue: 36 x more likely to be in the surgery group

These numbers show the need to put the ball down for a few months a year. During this off time, proper shoulder function and strength need to be restored and mechanics need to be optimized to keep arms healthy.

2. Losing enjoyment of the game

Every year, as more and more kids are playing competitively without a break, I see less excitement for the game. I can remember every spring was the best time of year. Practice was starting and the season was right around the corner. Now, there isn’t the same excitement, because many never have a break from competing in the same sport. It is just the same, long continuous season.

I was recently working with a player on hitting and he said something that made me realize how year round playing may be ruining the fun of the game. He is a very good player who plays year round. I asked him what he had done for fun over the summer and he said “Nothing really. All I have done is play baseball, I haven’t even been able to go swimming with my friends.” I wish this was just an isolated case, but unfortunately, I have seen a similar attitude from many year round players.

There have been many people who have been outspoken against early specialization of young athletes, but every year there are more and more. Unfortunately, I believe that this trend will continue. If a player decides to specialize early, the following are some guidelines that will help keep arms healthy and kids loving the game: 

1. Take 2-4 months off from throwing.

2. Limit pitch totals and total innings over the course of a game and season.

3. Work with a qualified pitching instructor to develop optimal mechanics.

4. Work with a qualified trainer to develop the strength, mobility and stability needed to throw a baseball with less risk of injury.

5. Take time to enjoy other activities.

 

References:

1. Andrews, Dr. J and Fleisig, G. “Prevention of Elbow injuries in Youth Baseball Pitchers.”

Sports Health. 2012 Sept; 4(5): 419-424.