Category Archives: Health/safety

The Kids Aren’t Alright. They’re Exhausted.

You see it all the time. Kids are at practice/lesson, or in a game, or in a tournament, etc. and they’re just not performing to the level at which they’re capable.

“C’mon Erin (or Lily or Leticia)!” parents or coaches yell. “Put some effort in. Quit dogging it and get your rear in gear.”

But the reality is Erin (or Lily or Leticia) may actually be giving all she has and more. Because the problem isn’t effort or intention. It could be fatigue.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a little more than 10% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 reported being tired every day or almost every day. Now, 10% doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’ll bet if you added in kids who report being tired at least some days during the week the number would go much higher.

What’s causing all this fatigue? One thing could be the crazy level of commitment that pretty much every activity (including fastpitch softball) demands throughout the year – and particularly through the school year.

In a lot of area, maybe most, kids have to wake up at 6:00 or 6:30 to get ready for school. They’re then there to say, roughly, 3:30. Once school is over they may have a school sport practice or game, one of which will happen every day during the week and often on Saturdays as well.

Once they’re done with school sports they rush to a team practice, sometimes in the same sport and sometimes in another. For example, they play volleyball at school and then head to softball practice, or strength and conditioning.

Now, if the other practice is happening once a week it has a minor impact. But a lot of teams these days practice 3-4 times a week IN THE OFFSEASON!

So now maybe that kid is being expected to go all-out physically and mentally for 4, 5, maybe even 6 hours with barely time to eat a little something for dinner.

By now it’s 8:00, 8:30, 9:00 or even later and the child who gave his/her all on the field and/or in practice still has to do a couple of hours of homework. Maybe more if there is a big project due or all the teachers loaded him/her up.

Then it’s brush your teeth and off to bed by 11:00 pm so you’re ready to start the cycle all over again.

Here’s where the problem comes in. Take a look at the chart below, which shows what time kids should be going to be based on the times they wake up for school.

Notice a discrepancy here? That 12 year old who wakes up at 6:30 am should be in bed by 8:45 pm, not 11:00 pm. When it happens night after night the sleep bank gets drained.

Ok, but surely kids older than 12 can operate on less sleep? True, but not as much as you might think.

The CDC recommends that kids 13-18 should get a minimum of 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Every night.

I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math. To get 8 hours of sleep, that teen who wakes up at 6:30 am for school should be going to bed no later than 10:30. If he/she needs a little more sleep to function well, bedtime should get pushed earlier.

But it’s not just the sleep that is causing the problem. It’s also the lack of downtime.

Running from school to practice/game to practice/lesson/conditioning to whatever else is going on day after day after day takes a toll.

Pretty soon there’s very little left in the tank. Performance suffers and the risk of injury increases.

Ok, that’s the problem. What’s the solution?

I don’t have a final, definitive answer. But I do have a few suggestions.

Cut back on offseason practices – This applies to every sport, not just fastpitch softball. I firmly believe in the value of being a multi-sport athlete. But teams don’t need to maintain an in-season practice schedule during the offseason.

In reality, the fastpitch softball season is either February until the end of July(ish) or June until the end of October, depending on when your state plays school ball. During that time practice all you want.

Outside of it, there is no real reason to go more than once a week. If players want more, have them do it on their own, where they can focus their efforts for a half hour instead of enduring a two-to-three hour team practice.

That schedule includes the fall ball “season.” If you’re in a state that plays high school softball in the spring, fall ball is offseason so treat it that way.

If you just feel you must practice more than once a week, keep practices shorter, focusing on the single thing you want to accomplish.

Parents, make some hard choices – I get that many kids want to do everything. But there is a cumulative effect in trying to do all of that, especially if everything is at a high level.

A better solution might be for your child to play one sport at a high level (such as A-level travel softball) and other sports, if they want them, at more of a recreational level where the schedule demands aren’t so high.

There will always be exceptions, or course. Some kids are capable of playing more than one sport at a high level. Most are not, however, at least not without suffering some sort of consequences.

Parents need to take off the parent goggles and really look at how their kids are doing. If they’re always tired maybe it’s time to take some things off of their plates so they also have time to rest and recover.

Take sleep needs seriously – Although I shared them, I think the sleep guidelines above are tough to manage. They’re also kind of generic, because some kids will need less – and some will need more.

But going to bed late and getting only five or six hours of sleep on a regular basis isn’t good for anyone. Parents, be sure your kids are getting the opportunity to sleep, even if that means opting out of practice on a heavy homework night.

As an aside, teachers may want to re-think the homework loads they’re assigning as well. The recommendation from the National Parent-Teacher Association and the National Education Association is 10 minutes per grade level, i.e., 10 minutes for first grade, 20 for second grade.

That’s total, not per-class. In addition, research indicates that more than two hours of homework total may be counterproductive.

Teachers should work together to keep homework focused and productive. Parents should work with teachers when they see excessive amounts of homework being assigned to ensure there is awareness of this fact and that a solution is created.

The bottom line is many kids are tired – physically, mentally, emotionally. They are over-scheduled and their time is micromanaged to a ridiculous degree, often as a result of adults seeking validation through the performance of those kids.

It’s unlikely this situation is going to improve on its own. It’s time to recognize the symptoms before they start getting more out of hand and taking steps to reduce the strain.

In the process, you’ll probably find those kids are closer to providing the performance level you desire.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

It’s Getting to Be Time to Take a Break

Not for me – my work never ends. But for players we are coming to a natural point to dial back the softball activities so they can rest and recover and maybe experience other things life has to offer.

I know it can be difficult to think of stopping the relentless pursuit of perfection, whether that’s among coaches whose self-worth is tied up in their won-loss records or players (and by that I mostly mean parents) who are laser-focused on winning that college scholarship.

But everyone needs a little vacation from what they’re normally doing to ensure they continue to perform at their highest level the rest of the year.

Right now a lot of teams (although not all) have finished their seasons. Shockingly many have already held their tryouts and selected their teams for 2022-2023 so that’s out of the way.

Even those who haven’t quite finished are getting to the point of winding down the 2021-2022 season. So rather than jumping right into next year, why not put a pin in the softball activities for a little while and go do something else?

This advice, by the way, also applies to my own students. I love you all, but taking a little time off from lessons and practice so you can come at next season with a fresh perspective (and fresh body) would be a good thing. I’ll still be here when you’re ready to get going again.

Of course, for some of you who are all softball all the time you may not know what else to do with yourself. Here are 15 suggestions of how to spend the next few weeks.

  1. Lay around and do nothing. After the intensity of the season doing nothing in particular is perfectly acceptable.
  2. Sleep late. A lot of players skimp on the sleep during the season, especially high school and college players while school is in session. Take this time to build your sleep bank up again. You’re going to need it soon.
  3. Hang out at the pool or lake or water park (if it’s warm enough). Most coaches prohibit going to the pool on game or practice days because it can drain energy and hurt performance. Since every day is a game or practice day these days here’s your chance to enjoy the healing effects of floating in the water.
  4. Visit with non-softball friends. Sure, you love your teammates to death. But it’s ok to have non-softball or even non-athlete friends too. Go hang with them and do young people things.
  5. Visit family. Your grandparents would love to see you. So would your cousins. Spend some quality time with them. Because you may go from team to team but family is forever.
  6. Go to an amusement park. Spend the whole day there without thinking about what time you have to leave to make it to practice. Ride the roller coasters. See the shows. Eat junk (but not enough to throw up on the rides). In other words, have fun.
  7. Go to the zoo or a museum or a botanical garden. Anywhere you can take a leisurely stroll, look at things, and just BE.
  8. See a concert. Doesn’t have to be a big name star. It could just be a local band playing for free in the park, or at a local venue. Music is good for the soul. And since most performances occur at the same time as you normally practice or play, here’s your chance to hear music the way it was intended to be played – live!
  9. Watch a movie or a play in an actual theater. Just remember you’re not in your living room anymore so shut the heck up when the performance is happening.
  10. Go to dinner at a place where you don’t have to bring your own food to the table or where there aren’t 100 TVs playing sports all around you. Enjoy the experience of eating without worrying about what time to get back for warmups.
  11. Have a picnic. Yes, a good old-fashioned picnic where you bring some food and drinks, spread out a blanket, and just enjoy the day in the shade instead of on a blazing hot field.
  12. Go stargazing. Again, grab a blanket, go outside at night in a dark area, and just look up at the marvelous show above you. Appreciate how many stars there are, and remember that even if there is another planet out there somewhere with sentient beings they don’t care if you made an error, struck out, or hit a home run during the championship game this season.
  13. Have a campfire – or go camping. Building on #12, instead of going out for an hour get back to nature and either build a fire in the backyard (with parental supervision if required) or grab a tent and go to an actual campground and hang out in nature. There is something magical about staring at a real fire, especially outdoors (versus in a fireplace).
  14. Learn something entirely new that has nothing to do with softball. Play a musical instrument. Ask someone to teach you how to sew/knit/crochet. Take a course on computer programming. Try another sport like golf or tennis. Start collecting stamps or coins or something else that interests you. A good diversion will not only be good for now, but could also help you decompress once you get back to playing and practicing.
  15. Take a trip to somewhere new. It’s a big, wide world out there full of interesting people and places. Go somewhere where the goal is to experience the location instead of running from the hotel to the ballfield and back again.

These are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can come up with more if you give it some thought.

The key is to get away completely so you can rest, recover, put the last season behind you, and get ready to get back at it with even greater enthusiasm. Remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Take a little time off of softball and you’ll probably find your love for it has grown even more while you’ve been away.

Photo by Mateusz Dach on Pexels.com

Light Bulb Moment: Athletic Efficiency

One of the concepts that can be tough for a young athlete (not to mention many adults) to understand is that stronger is not always better.

What I mean by that is that in their desire to throw harder, hit harder, run faster, etc. fastpitch softball players will often equate muscling up or tightening up with improved performance. They tend to take a brute force approach to their movements, assuming that if they work harder or produce more energy then they will ipso facto see better results.

Look who’s trotting out the fancy Latin.

Yet that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes the attempt at creating more energy through brute force works in the opposite manner by locking up joints or slowing down movements which reduces the amount of that energy that can be transferred into the activity.

In other words, despite the increase in energy the overall usage of energy becomes less efficient.

The reality is there are two key elements to maximizing athletic performance in ballistic movements such as pitching, throwing, hitting, and running.

First you have to create energy. Then you have to transfer that energy.

Unless your player is built like this guy.

The brute force approach may work with part one. But it often gets in the way of part two, which means much of the energy the player worked so hard to create is wasted.

Makes sense, right? But how do you explain that to a player without making it sound like a science class lecture – at which point your voice starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?

Never a good look during practice.

The light bulb moment for me came when I was thinking about a light bulb I needed to replace during a lesson. Perhaps this will help you too.

Think about two types of light bulbs: the standard, traditional incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with (and that are now difficult to find) and LED bulbs.

If turn an old-school incandescent bulb on and leave it on for a few minutes, what happens to its surface? It gets hot. Very hot. As in don’t touch it or you will get burned.

That’s because while an incandescent bulb may be labeled 60 watts, not all of that wattage is going into creating light. In fact, much of it is being wasted in the form of heat.

Now think about an LED bulb. You can leave a 60 watt LED bulb on for an hour, then go over and put your hand on it without feeling much of anything. (DISCLAIMER: Don’t actually do that, just in case.)

The reason is that 60 watt LED bulb isn’t actually drawing 60 watts. That’s just a label the manufacturers use to help consumers know which bulb will give them the light level they’re used to.

In fact, that 60 watt equivalent bulb may be drawing as little as 8 actual watts to deliver the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb. Since its purpose is to create light, not heat, the LED bulb is almost eight times as efficient as the incandescent bulb.

Now that’s apply that to softball. A pitcher who is nearly eight times as efficient in her mechanics as the next player will throw much harder with the same level of effort.

Conversely, she can perform at the same level as the other pitcher with almost no apparent effort at all. She is just much better at harnessing whatever level of energy she is creating and delivering it into the ball.

The same is true for hitters. Most of the time when you see a home run hit it doesn’t look like the hitter was trying to go yard. She just looks smooth as the ball “jumps” off her bat.

This is not to say strength isn’t important. It is.

Ladies, today we begin your new training program.

Remember part one of the formula: you have to generate energy. Great training in mechanics along with intelligent sport-specific or even activity-specific training is critical to achieving higher levels of success.

But it’s not enough.

Understanding how the body moves naturally, and using those movements to take full advantage of the energy being created, will help players deliver higher levels of performance that enable them to achieve their goals and play to their greatest potential.

Hope this has been a light bulb moment for you. Have a great holiday, and take some time to relax. You’ve earned it.

Why Internal Rotation Produces Better Fastpitch Pitching Results

The other day I came across a great post on the Key Fundamentals blog titled Softball Pitching Myths Pt. 2 – Hello Elbow by Keeley Byrnes.

Keeley is a former pitcher and now a pitching coach in the Orlando, Florida area, and her blog has a lot of tremendous content on it. I highly recommend you check it out and bookmark or follow it as she has a lot of great information to share.

This particular post is a good example. It seems that “hello elbow” mechanics – turning the ball toward second at the top of the circle, pulling it down the back side and then forcing a palm-up finish at the end – is very commonly taught around the U.S. and maybe around the world.

Yet if you look at what elite pitchers do, you won’t find those mechanics being used by ANY of them. In fact, just the opposite, which makes it like learning to ride a bike by facing the back wheel instead of the front one.

Keeley’s well-researched post goes into great detail discussing not only what elite pitchers do by why they do it, and why it makes sense that they do it.

For example, she quotes this article from the U.S. National Library of Medicine which says:

“It has been shown that internal (medial) rotation around the long axis of the humerus is the largest contributor to projectile velocity. This rotation, which occurs in a few milliseconds and can exceed 9,000°/sec , is the fastest motion the human body produces.

So if an internal rotation motion is the largest contributor to projectile (ball) velocity, why wouldn’t you want to use it? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Yet people still resist.

One of the interesting things about Keeley, along with Gina Furrey who I have mentioned in the past, is that both were taught “hello elbow” mechanics as players, and both now feel that not only did it limit their success, it also contributed to injuries that still plague them to this day.

When they first started out teaching they taught what they’d been taught. But then they did the research and discovered what they were teaching was actually sub-optimal, and they had the guts to change, which isn’t always easy.

Keeley goes as far as to show still photos of famous pitchers who appear to be pulling the hand up in a “hello elbow” manner, but then goes on to show what one of them actually does in a video. I’ve seen the others pitch and can tell you you’ll get similar results if you look at their full pitching motions.

Of course there is more to “hello elbow” than where the hand or elbow wind up. It’s actually a whole series of odd movements that rely on twisting the body, attempting to snap the wrist up at release and some other things that make it difficult to pitch efficiently – or effectively.

If that is what you, your daughter, or your team’s pitchers are being taught, I highly recommend checking out the Key Fundamentals blog where you’ll find a treasure trove of information that busts these myths, taken from the perspective of a former pitcher and practitioner. It’ll certainly open your eyes, and could save you a lifetime of regret.

IR Won’t Put Young Pitchers in the ER

Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.

With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.

The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.

This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.

Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.

But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.

IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.

It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.

So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.

Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.

Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position

Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:

The only being who has ever been happy about doing these.

Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.

Experiment #2 – How You Stand

Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?

If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.

These guys get it.

To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.

When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.

What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?

When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.

Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.

Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.

The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.

Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around

If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.

I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.

And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.

Reality check

The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.

The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.

They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.

The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.

I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.

A Former Collegiate Pitcher Tells Her Overuse Injury Story

I have talked in the past about the dangers of the “it’s a natural motion” myth and how it can lead to overuse injuries. A quick search on the term will turn up article after article from orthopedic surgeons who have to deal with the aftermath of overzealous coaches who love to win and enthusiastic parents who just love watching their daughters do what they love.

How common are overuse injuries? While this study of 181 NCAA collegiate pitchers across all divisions is admittedly pretty old, it shows that 70% of the reported injuries were due to overuse. With the increase in the number of games that are now being played at the youth levels of travel ball, starting at 10U or even earlier, plus the even greater emphasis on winning, it’s unlikely this situation has gotten better.

But all of that is pretty abstract. That’s why I wanted to share this Tik Tok video from my friend and fellow pitching coach Gina Furrey, who talks about the overuse injuries she suffered as a pitcher. It is actually the first in a series, so be sure to watch all of them.

Coach Gina doing what she loves!

Gina currently gives pitching lessons in the Nashville, Tennessee area under the business name Furrey Fastpitch. If you’re in that area and looking for a great coach who will teach you proper mechanics be sure to contact her. You can also find Furrey Fastpitch on Facebook and on Instagram at @furreyfastpitch.

Before that, though, she was a player who played travel ball at the highest levels before going on to pitch at St. Mary-of-the-Woods college. In her first video she describes how she can probably count on one hand the number of games she didn’t pitch for her various teams throughout her career. That’s a LOT of pitching.

She then goes on to tell how her collegiate career was cut short by an injury attributed to overuse – the cumulative effect of thousands of hours practicing and pitching in games, often with very little rest. I don’t want to go into too many details because it’s Gina’s story to tell.

The biggest reason I think every coach and every parent of a pitcher should watch Gina’s videos, however, is to see her demonstrate her range of motion today. When you see what she can do with her non-pitching arm versus her pitching arm it’s pretty scary.

Not to mention the pain she deals with every day. In my opinion, all the plastic trophies and gaudy rings and plaques and championship t-shirts in the world are not worth trading for an ability to move your arm and shoulder in a normal way.

One caveat I’d like to add is that this caution isn’t only limited to pitchers with poor mechanics. Yes, having very clean pitching mechanics can help prevent injury overall, but over use is over use. Repetitive motions, especially high-energy motions that depend on sudden accelerations and decelerations, can take a huge toll on muscles, ligaments, tendons and other body parts.

Do yourself a favor. Please, please, please, watch Gina’s videos and hear her story. It could save you or someone you love a lifetime of pain and limitations that can easily be avoided.

Are We Destroying Our Kids?

unrecognizable woman showing pain spot on back in doctor office

Injuries have always been a part of participating in youth sports. Jammed fingers, sprained ankles and knees, cuts requiring stitches, even broken bones were an accepted part of the risk of playing. Things happen, after all.

Lately, though, we are seeing a continuing rise of a different type of injury. This one doesn’t happen suddenly as the result of a particular play or miscue on the field. Instead, it develops slowly, insidiously over time, but its effects can be more far-reaching than a sprain, cut or break.

I’m speaking, of course, about overuse injuries.

According to a 2014 position paper from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, roughly 46 to 54% of all youth sports injuries are from overuse. Think about that.

There was no collision. There was no tripping over a base or taking a line drive to the face. There was no stepping in a hole in the outfield or catching a cleat while sliding. The injury occurred while participating normally in the sport.

And here’s the scary part. As I said, this report came out in 2014. In the six years since, the pressure to play year-round, practice more, participate in speed and agility training and do all the other things that go with travel ball in particular has only gotten worse.

You can see it in how one season ends and another begins, as we recently went through. Tryouts keep getting earlier and earlier, with the result that players often commit to a new/different team before their finished playing with their current teams.

It’s not that they’re being bad or disloyal. It’s that they have no choice, because if they wait until the end of the current season there won’t be anywhere left to go because all the teams have been chosen.

What is even crazier is that there literally was no break for many players from one season to the next. I know of many for whom their current season ended on a weekend and their first practice for the next season was the week immediately after. Sometimes they were playing their first game with the new team before their parents had a chance to wash their uniforms from the old team.

And it wasn’t just one practice a week. Teams are doing two or three in the fall, with expectations that players will also take lessons and practice on their own as well.

That is crazy. What is so all-fired important about starting up again right away?

Why can’t players have at least a couple of weeks off to rest, recuperate physically and mentally, and just do other things that don’t require a bat, ball or glove? Why is it absolutely essential to begin playing tournaments or even friendlies immediately and through the end of August?

I think what’s often not taken into consideration, especially at the younger ages, is that many of these players’ bodies are going through some tremendous changes. Not just the puberty stuff but also just growth in general.

A growth spurt could mean a reduction in density in their bones, making them more susceptible to injuries. An imbalance in strength from one side to the other can stress muscles in a way that wouldn’t be so pronounced if they weren’t being used in the same way so often.

Every article you read about preventing overuse injuries stresses two core strategies:

  1. Incorporating significant periods of rest into the training/playing plan
  2. Playing multiple sports in order to develop the body more completely and avoid repetitive stress on the same muscles

When I read those recommendations, however, I can’t help but wonder: have the authors met any crazy softball coaches and parents?

As I mentioned, I’ve seen 12U team schedules where they are set to practice three times a week – in the fall! And these aren’t PGF A-level teams, they’re just local teams primarily playing local tournaments.

Taking up that much time makes it difficult to play other sports. Sure, the softball coach may say it’s ok to miss practices during the week to do a school sport, but is it really?

Will that player be looked down on if she’s not there working alongside her teammates each week? Probably.

Will that player fall behind her teammates in terms of skill, which ultimately hurts her chances of being on the field outside of pool play? Possibly.

So if softball is important to her, she’s just going to have to forego what the good doctors are saying and just focus on softball, thereby increasing her risk of an overuse injury.

This is not just a softball issue, by the way. It’s pretty much every youth sport. I think the neverending cycle may be more of a softball issue, but the time factor that prevents participation in more than one sport at a competitive level is fairly universal.

In the meantime, a study published in the journal Pediatrics that pulled from five previous studies showed that athletes 18 and under who specialize in one sport are twice as likely to sustain an overuse injury than those who played multiple sports.

The alarm bells are sounding. It’s like a lightning detector going off at a field but the teams deciding to ignore it and keep playing anyway. Sooner or later, someone is going to get struck.

What can you do about it? It will be tough, but we have to try to change the culture.

Leaders in the softball world – such as those in the various organizations (including the NFCA) and well-respected college coaches – need to start speaking up about the importance of reducing practice schedules for most of the year and building more downtime in – especially at the end of the season. I think that will help.

Ultimately, though, youth sports parents and coaches need to take responsibility for their children/players and take steps to put an end to the madness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Build in a few weeks between the end of the summer season and beginning of the fall season for rest, recovery and family activities. There’s no reason for anyone to play before Labor Day.
  • Cut back on the number of fall and winter practices. Once a week with the team should be sufficient. Instead, encourage players to practice more on their own so they can fit softball activities around other sports and activities.
  • Reduce the number of summer games/tournaments. Trying to squeeze 100+ games into three months in the summer (two for high school players who play for their schools in the spring season) is insane bordering on child abuse. Take a weekend or two off, and play fewer games during the week.
  • Plan practices so you’re working on different skills in the same week. This is especially important when it comes to throwing, which is where a lot of overuse injuries occur. Work on offense one day and defense another. Or do throwing one day and baserunning another. Or maybe even play a game that helps with conditioning while working a different muscle group.

It won’t be easy, but we can do this. All it takes is a few brave souls to get it going.

Overuse injuries are running rampant through all sports, including fastpitch softball. With a little thought and care, however, we can reverse that trend – and keep our kids healthier, happier while making them better players in the process.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

6 Tips for Easing Back Into Softball Mode

Diamonds warmup

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join in on an NFCAonline mentoring session. While several of the topics that came up were more oriented toward college programs, there was one in particular that was pretty universal: how to get players back into softball mode.

For many, these past three months may have been the longest layoff they’ve had from a formal practice/workout routine since they were pre-teens. That’s especially true for players above the Mason-Dixon line (not to be confused with the Mendoza line, which is a whole different issue), where the weather has been spotty at best, and sometimes downright uncooperative.

With not just indoor facilities but many parks closed, it’s likely many players have spent far more time than they would have otherwise making Tik Tok videos, streaming movies and TV shows, sleeping, eating junk food and doing whatever else is popular among young people these days.

I get that, too. It’s tough to get motivated when you don’t know whether your next game will be next month, next fall, or next year.

Sure, teams have been doing Zoom meetings to try to hang together, and various activities such as the Facebook videos where it looks like they’re throwing the ball from one player to the next. But none of that requires a whole lot of physical exertion or delivers much preparation to get out and play.

Now that summer leagues and travel ball is beginning to open up again, however, it’s important to ensure players who have been idle for the last few months are given the opportunity to ease their way back into playing. Otherwise there is a risk of even more time off due to injuries.

Here are six tips to help ensure players stay healthy as they start working to shake off the rust.

  • Limit overhand throwing for the first few weeks. Arm and shoulder injuries due to improper throwing mechanics were already a problem, even before the Great Layoff. It’s unlikely the underlying issues have magically gotten better. While the time off was good for healing old injuries, it also means players can be highly prone to new ones. That’s why it’s important to ease them back into throwing overhand. Pay even closer attention to throwing mechanics during warmups, and spend a little more time than normal on shorter, lighter throws. (If you don’t know what to look for in terms of mechanics, check out Austin Wasserman’s excellent High Level Throwing programs.) During fielding drills, save arms by having players toss the ball to the side or drop it in a bucket at times rather than throwing the ball to a base. When you do start having players throw full-out, set a limit and stick to it. This is especially true for catchers practicing throwdowns. Remember it’s been a while. Do maybe 10-12 at most to start, and work your way up from there.
  • Put more emphasis on stretching. I shouldn’t have to say this but I’m going to anyway. Players who have been largely inactive for the last couple of months likely have tight muscles. Even those who have been putting in some practice time on their own are probably not as limber as they were when they were more active with school, other sports and activities or anything that required more effort than shifting positions on the couch. They need to get those muscles, tendons and ligaments working properly again. For the first few practices be sure you plan extra time for dynamic stretches to begin practice, and watch to make sure they’re doing those stretches properly. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched teams slop their way through various stretches and then expect they’re ready to play.) When you’re approaching the end of practice, be sure to leave a little time for cool-down stretches too. This is important at any time, but especially right now. Get those muscles, tendons and ligaments loosened up properly now and you’ll face far fewer injury issues down the road.
  • Condition intelligently. There’s a good kind of sore, where you know you fatigued the muscles well so they can strengthen and improve, and there is a bad kind of sore where you over-worked the muscles and now it’s going to take some time to recover. Unless you are a certified strength and conditioning coach you probably aren’t sure of the where that line is. It’s going to be tempting to try to get your team into peak game shape in one or two practices. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Remember that young people can have all kinds of stuff going on beneath the surface – Osgood-Schlatter Disease, growth plates, chronic tendonitis, etc. – that can affect their performance and cause pain. Overconditioning early on can exacerbate these conditions. While there may be a desire to get them into mid-season shape right now, resist it. Ease them in and build to it, just as you would in any other season. It will pay off in the long term.
  • Limit repetitions. One of the keys to all of the above is to limit repetitions in the early rounds. Overuse injuries are essentially caused by performing more repetitions than the body is capable of safely handling. After a period of inactivity that number may be a lot lower than you’re used to in a practice setting. Deal with it. There are actually two benefits to it. First, variety in activities helps work different muscle groups. That’s why so many college coaches say they like multi-sport athletes. The kids they get are in better shape and less likely to be damaged. The second benefit is that you have a lot of ground to make up. Focusing too much in any one area means other areas are being ignored, and you know those other areas will come back to bite you. Fewer reps means less time spent, which means you have time for other areas.
  • Hydrate early and often. If your players have mostly been laying around doing nothing they probably aren’t going to be used to the physical exertion of stretches, much less a full-fledged practice. As a result they can dehydrate quickly. Be sure to take frequent water breaks, especially for the first couple of weeks, and keep an eye out for signs of dehydration. Better yet, let them bring their water with them from station to station or area to area. After all, it’s unlikely that 12 or 14 or whatever number of players on a team will all need the same amount of water at the same time(s).
  • Remember the mental side. While the most obvious challenges will be physical, the mental side of the game will also need to be worked on if your players are going to be game-ready when it’s time to go. You may be all softball all the time, but most (if not all) of your players are not. That means they may have forgotten things you expect them to know (especially in the younger age groups), so be sure to go through those mental aspects as well. Walking through coverages, backups, special plays, rules and rule changes, etc. helps get their minds back in softball mode while saving their bodies. If players aren’t performing at the level they remember themselves being at before, they may experience stress or anxiety on top of what they’re already experiencing. Pay attention to those aspects as well, because they may not be able to compartmentalize their worries and concerns as well as you wish they would. Keep them focused, keep them positive and keep them engaged and they will bounce back to where they should be much faster.

Once you get back on the field it’s going to be tempting to just jam down the accelerator and take off right away. Resist that temptation.

If you ease into it instead, with an intelligent plan that builds on itself, you’re far more likely to find success in both the short and long term. Good luck!

Making the Most of Online Lessons

Ashley remote lesson

For those who read this in future years, as I write this post we here in Illinois we are still bracing for what is expected to be the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses are shuttered (including practice facilities) and we’ve all been told to stay home and practice social distancing.

Although it may not seem like it at times, eventually the danger will pass and our worries will go back to whether a runner was safe or out at home, how much playing time our daughters are getting and whether that six-foot-four flamethrowing pitcher on the other team is really 12 years old. So rather than letting players’ softball skills deteriorate completely (even as they become incredible at making Tik Tok videos) many instructors (including myself) have started offering online lessons.

(I know there are people who have done that for years, especially when distance has been an issue, but it’s new to me and I know it’s new to many others.)

It has definitely been a learning experience. Which I suppose is good because nothing keeps the mind sharp like having to learn something new.

For those who are wondering, I’ve been using Zoom. I tried a couple of other options, but if you want to use FaceTime you cut out everyone who doesn’t have an Apple product, and Skype requires both parties to have an account.

With Zoom the only one who needs an account is me. I create the meetings and send the links. The families just have to click on them when it’s time. And it’s free, which is nice.

So far I have found some good and, well, not bad but maybe less-than-ideal things about it. Let’s take a look at both.

The good

We’ll start with the positives because everyone can use a little lift these days. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to me is the ability to really focus narrowly on specific aspects that need work.

In a live setting there is often a tendency to try to cover a lot in a short amount of time. Working something over-and-over can be tough, especially with today’s hyper-stimulated kids and their eight-second attention spans. (Yes, I know that figure is up for debate but it makes the point.)

goldfish in water

This goldfish has a longer attention span than most kids today. And looks pretty fierce.

In an online lesson, though, it is much easier to get hyper-focused on specific aspects such as posture or release for pitchers or maintaining the sequence for hitters. It also makes it easier to convince players (and parents) who are anxious to go full-distance with skills to stay in close and really work on the nuances – which is where elite players actually spend a lot of their time.

I haven’t done this yet, but Zoom offers the option to record each session. I’m definitely going to try that soon. It would be nice to have a reference to go back to with a lesson later.

I use video a lot, but it’s usually more of a snapshot in time of a couple of repetitions. If I had my own facility and could have a permanent set-up like Rick Pauly I might record every lesson in its entirety. But I already have a lot of set-up to do each time I go to a facility or field so I’m not looking to add more. Online lessons makes that option easy.

Accessibility is another big plus, especially for families with multiple children involved in multiple activities. It’s a lot easier for a working parent to squeeze in a half hour from home than it is to drive 40 minutes each way, plus the lesson time itself, when their other kids need to get to and from their activities. Although honestly that isn’t so much of an issue right now.

Finally, as an instructor it is forcing me to think of new ways to convey the same information. I can’t just rely on what I’ve always done, because some of the options (such as demonstrating a skill) aren’t as available.

Yes, I can back off my camera and sort of show what I’m talking about for small skills. But trying to demonstrate leg drive visually doesn’t work as well so I have to find other ways to produce the desired results. Which I believe will make me a better instructor in the long run.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing but for the time being I spend most of the lesson sitting in a comfy chair instead of walking around. And there is no heavy equipment to carry to a field or set up. If you’re lazy, and aren’t we all sometimes, it’s certainly the easy way to go.

The not-so-good

There are just some things that work better when you can demonstrate them. It’s kind of tough to do a good demonstration when you’re tied to a computer.

While I am still able to capture video on Coach’s Eye during the lesson, it’s kind of a kluge process. Basically I use my phone to shoot the video I see on my video monitor. When I want to play it back for the student, she has to get in close to her device, then I have to hold the phone up to my laptop’s camera and angle it so there is no glare. It gets the job done, but it’s night ideal.

The other video aspect is that my view of the student is limited to the camera’s point of view. If I want to move from looking at the student from the side to looking at her from the back I can’t just walk behind her. I have to ask someone on-site to physically move the camera, then fine-tune it so I can see what I want to see.

air aircraft airplane art

Of course, I could solve that issue by getting  one of these.

That’s not too bad with a phone or a tablet. It can be a little less convenient with a laptop because of the size. Regardless, it works best if you have a dedicated person for the camera so the moves can be made most efficiently.

One bit thing I miss is being able to take speed readings of every pitch, which is something I started doing recently. Unless the family has a set-up like mine, where you can run the radar continuously and have some sort of visible display you’re not going to be able to do it too easily. It’s always nice to see if the adjustments you’re making are having the desired effect.

Then there’s the personal relationship aspect, which I believe is critical for generating optimal results. One of the most important things any coach can do is create a personal connection with the people he/she is coaching. This is true not only in softball but in many aspects of life.

Creating that connection would be less effective, I think, if it was solely over an online system. Don’t get me wrong – it’s better than nothing. But there’s nothing like being together in the same space.

Fortunately, I already have that connection (or at least believe I do) with my current students so it’s not really an obstacle right now. I know them and they know me, so a video conference works. But it would probably be a lot tougher to build that same type of relationship with a net new student. (That said, if someone wants to give it a try let me know in the comments or contact me directly!)

Speaking of space, that can be one additional challenge for families versus going to a facility. Particularly right now while the weather is sort of iffy.

Today may be a beautiful day to go out into the back yard and throw a ball. Tomorrow and the next three days might be horrible between the rain or snow and the cold. If the student doesn’t have room indoors to throw, hit, whatever there’s not a whole lot you can do except work on strategy and the mental game until the weather gets better.

So there you have it – a few quick thoughts from my limited experience. The good news is those who have tried it so far seem to like it – especially the focus on specific aspects. They’re happy we’re able to continue working, even on a somewhat limited basis, so they’re ready for the season whenever it eventually comes.

Now I want to know what you think. Have you tried online lessons yet (not just with me but with anyone)? What did you like, and what didn’t you like? Is there anything you’ve liked better about online than in-person lessons?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to wash your hands and stay safe!

 

Drone photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Goldfish photo by Gabriel P on Pexels.com

New Research Notches Another Strike Against Early Sport Specialization

Play at first

The debate over whether young athletes should play multiple sports or focus on one to develop their skills – often framed around the best way to earn a college scholarship – has been going on for quite a while now.

Up until a few years ago it wasn’t much of a debate. Nearly all kids played multiple sports, and each sport had a season. These days, with nearly all club/travel sports becoming year-round commitments, it gets tougher and tougher to be a multi-sport athlete.

Some new research published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS), a scientific, peer-reviewed publication, weighs in on the topic. Since reading the actual article would require you to purchase it, here’s a press release that provides a pretty good summary.

The article defines early sports specialization (ESS) as “the intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (under the age of 12) for more than eight months per year, with a focus on a single sport to the exclusion of other sport and free play.” Does that sound like anyone you know?

The article goes on to point out that the “lack of diversified activity in youth leads to increased risk of injury and burnout.” No surprise there. Young bodies are still developing, and the constant repetition and wear-and-tear in the same ways can certainly take a toll.

As I like to explain, any sort of repetitive motion, done enough, can cause issues. Just look at carpal tunnel syndrome.

Clicking a mouse is hardly intense activity, yet 3-6% of adults in the U.S. acquire it at some point, often leading to surgery that costs thousands of dollars. Now imagine a much more robust series of activities repeated over and over on a body that hasn’t fully developed.

But what about the pursuit of excellence (and more specifically college scholarship opportunities)? The authors of the study state that ESS “may not be necessary for elite athletic achievement, but rather early diversification of sports leads to superior results.” They also say those who diversify show more enjoyment of sports in general, have a lower frequency of dropout, and have “fewer signs of chronic stress, higher levels of motivation and a gradual independence.”

I know I’ve seen the value of diversification in the athletes I’ve worked with over the years. For example, I love working with gymnasts, tumblers and cheerleaders. They have tremendous strength, especially in their core, as well as excellent body awareness that enables them to learn new athletic skills quickly. Skaters also tend to fall into this category.

Basketball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse players are usually in great shape and very quick. No need to do a lot of conditioning or speed and agility work with them – someone else is already doing that heavy lifting for you. They tend to make excellent middle infielders and pitchers.

Those are just a few examples of how the skills and athleticism gained in other sports translate to fastpitch softball. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Of course, at some point athletes do have to start specializing to some degree if they’re going to pursue higher level play. By the time they reach high school age the time demands for club/travel players make maintaining a competitive level in one sport tough, much less two or three. Although it can still be done if the adults are adults about it and willing to accept that a multi-sport athlete may not make it to every practice and team activity.

By that age, players may also self-select out of multiple sports. They may recognize that they’re better at one than another and decided to focus on it, or may lose interest in some sports they liked in the past. Of course, a few will want to continue playing more than one, at which point they will likely have to choose which to do at a high level and which to do at more of a recreational level.

At the younger ages, however, participating in different sports should not only be allowed but encouraged. Parents and coaches should work together to build a schedule that’s best for the young athlete as well as the team – including total time off from everything now and then so the kid can be a kid.

Coaches can also take heart from the fact that many of the basic skills from other sports will transfer to softball, helping players become better than they would have been otherwise.

Now, if your child isn’t interested in other sports it doesn’t make sense to force him or her into them just for the sake of cross-training. But most kids aren’t that narrowly focused.

As a society we need to dial back our obsession with youth sports (and college scholarships for 10 year olds) and instead focus on helping our kids establish a solid foundation and love for athletics that will carry them through their lives. The evidence increasingly shows it’s best for them in both the short and long terms.

 

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