Before you unfairly judge me as someone that is against youth baseball please understand that this blog could be about youth tennis, softball, soccer, football, gymnastics, or many other sports. Each of these sports have traumatic irreversible effects if the athletes are overexposed and specialized too young.
Fifteen years ago leading orthopedic surgeons would perform eight to nine Tommy John surgeries a year on athletes in high school or younger. Now, those same leaders are doing eight or nine surgeries a week on our youth.
What has changed in the U.S. in the last 15 years is pressure to play baseball year round. Not only to play year round, but play on 2 teams at a time during the spring / summer push. Youth baseball has become a huge business that is pressuring parents and kids alike into a lose-lose situation. Players feel the need to keep up with others that are playing year round not knowing what they are really doing; possibly destroying their chance of having even a varsity career, much less a college or professional opportunity. You can show me 10-12 athletes that played in a youth world series and made an appearance in the MLB. I can show you millions of kids that have been Great VARSITY players always play at the next level while there are hundreds of thousands of great youth baseball players that do not make it out of high school or even varsity.
No matter what any youth coach says, no scout or college coach cares how hard your 12 year old throws. The mileage you put on your youth athlete will rear it’s ugly head most likely in high school or later. It is unlikely that when an arm is hurt that the damage was done at that very instant. The body makes adaptations to keep up with the stresses imposed during that crucial development period. Overuse injuries from excessive overhand throwing including Medial apophysitis (little league elbow) or Osteochondritis dissecanscan have significant impact on future injuries and performance of athletes when they reach their post pubescent state. Osteochondritis Dissecans is caused by the compression of the IMMATURE bones of the elbow joint, causing small pieces of cartilage and bone to float inside the joint. Issues like these can only create one thing and it’s not a professional baseball career. No college recruiters(or scouts) seriously consider an athlete before their varsity years. So ask yourself, what are you really doing? You are traveling around as a hostage to baseball. You and your kids are going to hate it before it’s over and they are most likely hurting their future chances of playing at a high level. Even if your athlete has no significant sign of injuries, the research shows significant drop off in performance from too much baseball.
After winning the national championship Vanderbilt head baseball coach Tim Corbin was quoted when asked what kind of players he recruits to his program.
“I am completely against (specializing),” Coach Corbin said. “As a young kid you should play everything to develop physical and mental skills, but you also learn about body control and body awareness. To be specialized means a kid is missing out on other development opportunities. To make baseball a 12-month-a-year sport is a bad idea in so many ways.”
Corbin has frequently been quoted as saying that they do not recruit baseball players that played too much youth baseball. They want multi-sport athletes and players that took a minimum of 3 months completely off of throwing and swinging per year. He and his staff have learned that these types of athletes have the best long term development and least risk of injury. Guess what? So have Major League Baseball scouts.
Some of you that are reading this are already thinking about writing comments below citing the Dominicans and how they play baseball year round, never taking time off or training. All of these claims are misconstrued and altogether false. Below is a quote from a recent ESPN article on the state of the famous Dominican youth baseball academies.
Of course, one reason Dominican kids are so skilled is that they play very few games. Unlike topflight American youth baseball, which emphasizes dozens of organized games a year, Dominican training is based on solitary skill repetition and training. The article goes on to explain that the athletes have work, training, and a multitude of things to do that suffice as cross-training. Even if it’s not seen that way by the Dominicans themselves, that is in fact what they are doing.
Here are some simple guidelines if you are involved with youth baseball.
*Under no circumstances should any youth athlete be playing for two baseball teams at any given point in time. Make no mistake: you are hurting your kid and it is not helping them do ANYTHING.
*More is not better. Better is better. Limit practice time and keep it pristine. Perfect reps teach perfect play. Practicing baseball fatigued is not going to help in a game because the athletes are not fatigued in a game. In season athletes must take at LEAST one full day off of no throwing or swinging. I prefer athletes take two days off during the tournament season.
*Most showcases are a money grab and a waste of time. Do you have experience playing Varsity? Do you have a connection to a college coach or MLB scout that will be there? Did a university or team request you be there? If your answer is no to ALL of these questions than you are wasting your time, money, and young arm. If you answer yes to one or more of these questions then you need to ask yourself if you are ready to perform in a showcase? Going to 20 of them is not the answer.
*Take 1-3 months COMPLETELY away from the bat and ball. We work with athletes that are damaged from their youth and no matter how well we do our job, the injuries have already effected their body and hampered long term development.
*Play another sport. NO athlete should specialize in anything before sophomore year in high school. Most need to wait much longer than that.
*Do not designate positions or glorify a member of the team. This is why I do not agree with the little league world series. Most of those kids will never even be a star on varsity because they have been given a false sense of accomplishment or stardom. No kid can compare his ability fairly to other kids until everyone is on the other side of puberty. In my mind we are praising the early developers and it is getting down right silly, more importantly damaging to athletes on all sides of the spectrum. No one is a pitcher. No one is a catcher. Play baseball. You may lose a few more games but your kids will develop at a higher rate and they will reach higher levels in the long run.
*TRAIN. Baseball is an asymmetrical sport and you will develop asymmetries that can be detrimental to your body in more ways than sport. Athletes need a good training program to balance them out and look at the big picture which should be developing a better athlete. With older college and professional athletes, training should focus on ways to feed asymmetries and rotational power while keeping the recovery and therapy practices as a staple in the programming.
The sad truth is that this blog could have been written about any youth sport in America. Just replace the headline and some of the problems. It is my responsibility as a professional to seek and tell you the truth. The truth is that we are making detrimental mistakes that are effecting the kids we care about in a negative way. Parents and coaches are destroying dreams before they are even a possibility because they are unaware of the consequences of overuse. As professionals we are just as liable for these failures if we do not call attention to this matter.
Here is a video from John Smoltz hall of fame speech on how kids are playing too much baseball:
For more tools and references on how to maximize youth baseball please check out the following:
Dr. Andrews’ STOP injury program for youth sports
Throw Like a Pro app