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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

Softball Pitchers: Leave the Ice in the Cooler (Mostly)

Leave the ice in the cooler

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s always interesting (at least to me) when you discovered something you thought you “knew” is actually incorrect. I’ve had several of those moments along the years.

I used to have pitchers start their warm-ups by performing wrist flips. Not anymore – they’re useless at best, and at worst counter-productive to what you’re trying to get to happen.

I used to have players do static stretches – the ones where you stand and pull on a muscle to stretch it, like that one everyone loves where you place one arm across your chest, place the other just above the elbow, and pull. Or where you bend down and try to touch your toes without moving. Then I found out dynamic stretching is far more effective at preparing players to play and prevent injury, because it turns the nervous system on instead of turning it off like static stretches.

Now the latest revelation is that automatically icing after pitching (or any sports activity where there is normal wear-and-tear) may not be such a hot idea (pardon the pun) after all.

This article from Stack, a company focused on training and conditioning, talks about baseball pitchers, but the principle is the same.

The conventional wisdom has always been to ice arms, elbows and shoulders after pitching to help them heal faster and get ready for the next game. But it turns out ice may actually have the opposite effect, slowing the healing process and making a pitcher more prone to ongoing soreness and injury.

The reason is that ice constricts the flow of blood to the affected area, yet blood flow is what is needed to bring healing nutrients to the site, and carry away waste products that get in the way of healing. Again, the article goes into much more detail into the science behind it.

What’s interesting is that most of us have probably heard the acronym R.I.C.E. for treating an injury. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Yet now even the physician who coined the acronym, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, has retracted his support for using ice to treat injuries after seeing the research. He’s also retracted his recommendation for rest, preferring movement instead.

It’s the same for “preventive” icing as many pitchers still do after a game, or a day at a tournament in the case of youth sports players. While ice may temporarily relieve pain, it will also slow down recovery. So just automatically icing an arm, shoulder, elbow or other body part for that matter should be removed from a player’s routine.

This makes sense to me because I remember one time when I was in high school and went to the weight room (something I didn’t take advantage of nearly enough when it was free!). One day I overdid it on curls, and a couple of hours later I couldn’t move my arms. Literally.

I thought they were going to be stuck that way forever. What finally helped was taking a very light pole and going through the curling motion. It hurt at first, but it helped break down whatever was happening in my biceps and forearms and I was finally able to move my arms again – mostly pain-free.

So what should you do instead to help arms heal properly? It ain’t rocket science.

Basically, according to the Stack article, the three keys are light activity/exercise, proper nutrition and getting enough sleep. So when your daughter falls asleep in the car on the ride home she’s not being lazy or tuning out your expert post-game evaluation. She’s healing.

You may also want to speak with a physician, trainer or other professional who is up on the latest information and can give you more specific advice. They’ll know a lot more about it than I will, or Dr. Internet for that matter.

But based on the research, the one solid recommendation I will give is that going forward, leave the ice in the cooler. It’ll be better for everyone.

The importance of rest and recovery for athletes

Just read an interesting and worthwhile article by Arizona coach Mike Candrea for his Liberty Mutual Play Positive monthly column. The topic was sports injuries and how to prevent or at least minimize them.

In the column Candrea talks about some of the causes, especially in softball. He says most injuries in our sport are not the result of something occurring on the field, but of overuse. He points to his own experience where a career-ending elbow injury requiring surgery was the result of over-use in Little League.

One of the big points he brings up, and the one I want to focus on today, is the need for rest and recovery. Today in youth sports there seems to be a focus on playing as many games as we can. When we’re not playing we’re practicing, and when we’re not practicing we’re expected to be conditioning, or doing speed an agility, or doing something else to get better.

All of those are good things, but you can get too much of a good thing too. The importance of rest and recovery time cannot be overstated. This article from the American College of Sports Medicine says, “Rest is a critical component to any good workout routine and time spent allowing the body to recover is a great way to prevent injuries. A rest day must occur at least one to two times per week. Even small breaks during a workout are sometimes required to get the most out of the workout and prevent injuries.”

This article from Stack gets more into the specifics of overtraining. Among the points it makes is that muscles that are worked hard tend to have their proteins break down. If the athlete isn’t allowed to rest the protein continues to break down and put the athlete at risk of injury.

While these things apply to any athlete, they particularly apply to youth athletes whose bodies are still growing and changing. They need recovery time – rest, not just a lighter workout – to avoid injury.

As parents and coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure our athletes have the rest and recovery time they need – even if that makes us unpopular, or goes against the grain of what everyone else is doing.

If you’re an athlete you need to listen to your body. Don’t just try to “tough it out.” You’re not training to be a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. Speak up if you can’t go. Again, it might not make you popular, and it might cost you playing time today. But better that you’re still able to play a few years from now than to allow some fanatic to ruin your career.

It’s not being lazy. It’s being smart. Listen to the experts. A few less games or practices might be just what the doctor ordered.

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