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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!

Time To Take Some Time Off From Throwing

photo of two women lying on grass

Photo by Rendy Maulana Yusup on Pexels.com

The season is over. Tryouts are over (at least for the most part.) What to do now?

Gung-ho fastpitch softball families (are there any other kind?) might be tempted to start going at it hard and heavy to get ready for fall ball and the upcoming spring season. After all, if you’re not working to get better, your opponents probably are.

But I have another idea. Take a break. Not just lighten up the workload to three days a week, but take an actual break.

Give your body a chance to rest, recover and build itself back up. Give your brain a chance to let go of whatever was happening before and get rejuvenated.

But it’s not just psychological. It’s also physical.

These days it seems like there is a secret prize for the team that plays the most games in the shortest period of time, and everyone is going for that prize. You’ll see programs bragging that their teams play 100 or even 150 games in a year (with a 12-player roster). Much of that playing time is compressed into September and October in the fall, and then April-July in the summer.

High school-age players may even have a heavier workload, because they have their school season and then their travel/summer season. Except Iowa, where high school is the summer season for whatever reason.

What all this has led to is a rash of overuse injuries. Not just for pitchers, although we are seeing more and more of it as this article points out. A pitching staff that throws 90 pitches a game (a conservative number for most) across 100 games will have thrown 9,000 pitches. Divide that by a three-person rotation and it’s roughly 3,000 pitches each.

That’s a lot of pitches – especially when you consider that typical college pitchers in one study, who have the benefit of daily weight training and conditioning run by a professional staff, threw an average of just 1,243 pitches during the season.

Now, Rachel Garcia, the NCAA D1 player of the year and winner of this year’s Women’s College World Series did throw 3,178 pitches total this season. But do you really think the 12 or 14 year olds you know are comparable in strength and conditioning to Rachel Garcia? Doubtful.

It’s not just about pitchers, however. Position players can also get overworked, especially when it comes to throwing. Even if you have great mechanics, the effort and stress placed on the shoulder throwing overhand a hundred times a day every day in practice can cause wear and tear that needs to be addressed.

Overuse injuries such as tendinitis and small tears in soft tissue can easily build up over time. They may not be bad enough to require surgery, but they can cause pain. And as the pain builds, the mechanics break down to work around the pain.

Over the course of a season things can get pretty sloppy. If you just launch right into the next season those issues aren’t going to magically get better. They’re going to get worse.

Finally there’s the mental side. If you’re working hard (as you should), it’s easy to become mentally fatigued as well. That’s not good either.

Taking a little time off – like professional players in all sports do, incidentally – can help recharge the ol’ batteries and get you ready to tackle new challenges.

So my advice to you is to walk away from the practice field (or area) for a bit and let your body heal itself. See a doctor or a physical therapist if you need to. But one way or another, give yourself a break and go do something else for a little while. You (and your body) will really be glad you did.

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