Nearly every baseball parent has seen this tournament scenario. “Hunter,” a 10u pitching stud is
on the mound, pounding the strike zone with an expert mixture of four seam fastballs and curve balls. His defense would be bored if it weren’t for the show he’s putting on racking up K after K. Even parents from other teams are taking notice of this ball hurling phenom.
Hunter is two batters away from another complete game shutout. Just like the rec ball game he pitched two nights ago. His parents naively beam with pride. It’s their kid everyone’s raving about. The coach winks at his MVP hurler as his breaking ball confounds yet another batter.
Hunter’s team wins the tournament, of course. He’ll take the mound again on Tuesday for his rec league. On Wednesday, he has a lesson with his pitching instructor. And next week he’s looking forward to baseball camp at the local high school. His arm will continue to feel good and perform as strongly as ever.
Until one day when it doesn’t.
That day might come one, three or eight years down the road. No one knows. But it will come…if he keeps throwing that hard, that frequently.
Whose job is it to save Hunter from the fallout of his own ability? From peaking as a pitcher before he’s old enough to drive? From facing elbow reconstructive surgery as an adolescent?
It’s his mom and dad’s job! But they assume that his coaches are looking out for him.
Here’s the thing, Parents. Coaches like to win. And if they’ve got a pitcher who can make that happen, they’re going to use him. Too many coaches prioritize a win today over the health of their young pitchers down the line. A lot of our kids play on two or more teams, led by coaches who don’t know each other, much less communicate about which pitcher they threw during which games.
It’s fun being the parent of a young ace pitcher. But you’d better step up to the plate and be his advocate too. How he treats his arm today can dictate whether or not he’s still on the mound in high school.
There are hundreds of stories about great youth pitchers at the top of their game one season and on the disabled list the entire following year with nothing but overuse to blame. No one wants their kid to be out of commission for months because they didn’t know when to say no.
According to the Journal of Sports Medicine, 60-percent of ulnar collateral ligament reconstructions (aka Tommy John surgeries) are now performed on young athletes, ages 15 to 19, mostly pitchers. This invasive procedure, once a last resort for overworked MLB hurlers, has become routine with the intense pitching schedules of today’s young players. Thanks to warm weather allowing for year-round play, Tommy John surgeries are performed more in the South than any other U.S. region.
Even Major League Baseball has taken notice of youth baseball’s rash of overuse injuries. To combat what’s now being called an “epidemic,” MLB came out with the Pitch Smart program, a collection of age-based pitching guidelines and risk factors to avoid. Click the link. It should be required reading for every baseball parent and coach.
If your kid pitches more than just occasionally, it’s YOUR responsibility to do the following.
- Keep up with how many pitches he’s throwing in every game. You count them. Don’t assume the person keeping the book is doing it. Know the league pitch count and days of rest rules. (Don’t go by innings pitched. That can be very misleading.) Be ready to step in and challenge the coach if he leaves your son on the mound longer than he should.
- If your player is on more than one team, it’s your job to communicate with each coach about when he’s pitched last, how many pitches he threw and how soon to use him again.
- Ask your pitcher how his arm feels after EVERY game. Drill it into his head that he should ask to be taken off the mound at the first sign of pain. NEVER ever pitch through pain!
- Make sure your pitcher is using proper throwing mechanics. (My older son had two bouts of tendonitis due to a very minor flaw in his delivery that two different pitching instructors failed to notice. Once it was caught and corrected, his tendonitis never came back.)
- Don’t let your player throw anything other than a fastball or change-up until he’s at least 13. (Although, the verdict is still out on how much throwing curve balls can affect young elbows.)
- Limit time behind the plate as a catcher. Don’t allow your kid to pitch and catch in the same day. It can double the risk of joint wear and tear. Just last year, an ace pitcher we know (great kid), pitched one and caught two consecutive games for his travel team one day after pitching a complete game for his rec team. He wound up missing the rest of the season, unable to throw without pain. His mom raised a stink with his travel coach about not looking out for her son’s arm. This mom had been at all four games. She knew the rules! Why didn’t she step in beforehand and say “no, that’s too much?”
- Take a three to four-month break from baseball. I don’t care how competitive your kid is, or how great the weather is where you live; playing baseball year round is a BAD idea. Foster his interest in other sports or hobbies during the off-season. (Insert link to multi sport article)
And finally, memorize the chart below.
American Sports Medicine Institute Position Statement for Adolescent Baseball Pitchers – Read this and commit it to memory.
** There are plenty of baseball coaches out there who are vigilant about taking care of young arms, obeying pitch counts/rest days and would never put their pitcher in jeopardy for a trophy. But don’t assume that they’re all this way.