With baseball season right around the corner, young players across the country are preparing to get on the diamond. However, just as important as throwing the ball hard, hitting the ball far and running with lightning speed is the ability to stay healthy over the course of the season. Every year, there seem to be more youth baseball injuries as a result of early specialization and a host of other reasons. Below are three ways to keep young players healthy and performing at their best all season long.
1. Ramp up slowly and warm up properly
The data on youth baseball injuries are limited, but studies of MLB players indicate that injuries are more likely to happen at the beginning of the season than at the end. One such study suggested that players were 10 times more likely to get hurt in the month of April than in September.
First, many players go too hard too soon at the start of spring training. This is especially true of young players, many of whom have not picked up a baseball in months. Baseball is a power sport that involves explosive movements. Adding too much volume to these movements at the start of practices can lead to a variety of overload injuries. Coaches need to gradually increase the number of repetitions that players perform during early-season practices.
Second, the weather is cold in most of the country at the beginning of baseball season, and lower temperatures make it harder to get the body loose and stay warm throughout a game or practice. Coaches should mandate a thorough warm-up before any team activity and spend extra time warming up when the temperature drops.
2. Monitor pitching quantity
One of the easiest ways to get injured in baseball is by pitching too much. Every year, as more kids play year round and play more games, the number of pitching-related injuries rises.
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A 2012 study titled Prevention of Elbow Injuries in Youth Baseball conveys some alarming statistics and provides guidelines to avoid pitching-related arm injuries. According to the study, kids who:
- Pitched more than 100 innings per year were three times more likely to need surgery
- Threw 80-plus pitches per game were four times more likely to need surgery
- Pitched competitively for 8-plus months per year were five times more likely to need surgery
- Pitched regularly with arm fatigue were 36 times more likely to need surgery
- Pitched and played catch increased their risk of injury due to increased throwing volume
Simply put, throwing a baseball is incredibly taxing on the arm, so monitoring pitching quantity can go a long way toward preventing injury. In addition, as pitch counts rise, coaches should monitor throwing mechanics and look for signs of fatigue. Players should communicate with their coaches when their arms are tired or they begin to feel pain.
3. Maintain strength and mobility
Throwing, hitting, running and pitching are all powerful, explosive movements that require a great deal of strength and coordination. For example, throwing a baseball requires incredible contributions from the lower body to generate force; a strong, stable core to transfer force; and a mobile shoulder joint and strong scapular stabilizers to move the arm to throw the ball. If any link in the chain loses strength, mobility or stability, the whole movement is affected.
If strength, stability or mobility suffer, mechanics will change—which is a leading cause of injury. A study done at Northwestern University showed that pitchers who had more muscular strength placed less stress on their elbows when pitching. Their muscles were better able to protect their elbow joint.
Baseball is unique in that games are played often with few off days. During the season, players should strength train 2-3 times per week to maintain their strength. Workouts should be shorter than off-season workouts and should focus on the entire body. Below is a sample in-season workout:
- Deadlifts – 2-3 x 5-8
- Push-Ups – 2-3 x 10-15
- Walking Lunges – 2-3 x 10/side
- Dumbbell Rows – 2-3 x 10/side
- Planks – 2-3 x 30 seconds
Along with maintaining strength, baseball players need to work on mobility as the season wears on. They should spend time foam rolling the major muscles of their upper and lower body to keep their muscle tissue functioning optimally. In addition, they should focus on the areas of the arm that take much of the stress during the throwing motion: the posterior shoulder; the biceps; and the inside of the elbow, below the joint. It is well known that throwers lose internal rotation of the shoulder and elbow extension over the course of the season, leading to more stress being placed on the shoulder and elbow. Doing soft tissue work on these three areas can go a long way to helping them maintain mobility and lower their injury risk.
- Place a lacrosse ball on back of shoulder.
- Cross arm over chest.
- Roll muscles in the back of the shoulder for 1 minute.
- Place a lacrosse ball on biceps.
- Roll ball over length of muscle moving up and down for 1 minute.
Inside of elbow, below joint
- Place a lacrosse ball on inside of elbow just below the elbow joint.
- Roll area for 1 minute making sure to not roll on the bone.