Pitcher Longevity- We are ALL Responsible Coach Blaesing

Every person in a young man’s career plays a vital role in the long term development, success, health, and longevity of career.  I think it is time that we stop focusing on whom to blame and instead start educating ourselves on the subject.  Let me place a disclaimer…we don’t all need to become experts on arm care.  We simply need to understand our role and the importance we play in a young pitcher’s life.

 
You may have heard the news that was recently released about a high school boy named Dylan Forsacht from Washington that threw 194 pitches in 14+ innings in a high school game.  He struck out 17 hitters. He was pulled in the top of the 15th and was replaced by his catcher, Dustin Wilson who finished the 17 inning game.  Wilson then started and pitched all seven innings of the schools second game that day.  In addition, the opposing starter worked the first 12 innings, striking out 13 and allowing two hits without a walk.  
 
The head coach and the assistant coach have since apologized and said Forsacht should not have thrown that many pitches.  And currently that seems to be the end of it.  However, former major leaguer pitcher Tommy John, who underwent the first ever Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction (UCL) in 1974 disagrees with the decision to not punish the head coach.  He said he sees no reason for a prep player to throw that many pitches. "The guy (head coach) should lose his job. He should be fired right now.  He would be collecting his last paycheck if I were the athletic director.” 

I couldn’t agree more.  As many of you know, pitch count, days rest period, showcases, summer ball, fall ball, and year round throwing programs are hot topics right now, as they should be.  Seeing the number of youth pitchers getting elbow or shoulder surgeries is astounding (UCL Reconstructions are up 700% over the last 10 years).  It is common place to see a high school athlete with a scar on their elbow that looks like this:
 

TJ Scar


This scar is the result of UCL Reconstruction, better known as Tommy John Surgery.  This surgery takes place when the ligament near the elbow becomes stretched, frayed, or torn due to overuse.  The surgery is most often seen at the major league level, but commonly the damage from overuse has been done way before they reach their college or professional careers (ages 8-18).

Travel Baseball- The Scapegoat on Arm Injuries

The number of times in the past month that I have seen travel baseball blamed for arm injuries like the one above by high school coaches and arm care experts via facebook, twitter, baseball web chats, magazines, etc.  has been astounding!  And you know what; sometimes travel baseball does deserve the blame.  Many travel coaches really have no business throwing their pitchers as much and as often as they do.   However, the road to arm injuries is not a one way highway call Travel Baseball.

1 Way

 
Truth is, it’s more like one of these six corner intersections: confusing as hell unless you really know the area! 


6 way

 Additional Culprits

To blame only travel baseball for arm injuries is not only inaccurate, it is also somewhat ignorant.  Due to my current role in youth baseball, I personally get a very unique viewpoint of what is happening in today’s game for the following reasons: I manage a baseball program (350+ players, 60+ coaches, 700+ parents, and players from 41 high schools), am the head coach of a 16 year old team, and am a private hitting and catching coach who works with players and families one on one.   On a daily basis, I get to coach from the field, instruct in a cage, be a spectator and fan for my own program, be a spectator and fan for local high schools, talk with my coaches, opposing coaches, and high school coaches on a daily basis, as well as be the main contact for parents in our program with any question, comment, or concern.  So I think I have a nice overall viewpoint of the baseball landscape in the area.  With that said, I have seen and/or heard of many "culprits" both in and out of travel baseball.

Travel Coaches- Let me start with myself and my peers.  Take care of your players, teach them, and encourage them.  Motivate the hell out of them.  But, take winning and throw it out the window.  If your team has enough talent, they will win.  Outside of playing guys in the right positions and maybe an occasional managerial decision, you do not win the game or lose the game.  You do not hit, pitch, or play defense during the game.  The players win and lose.  If winning is that important to you and you are not winning, recruit better players and recruit and develop more pitchers!   Riding your two best pitchers because they give you the best opportunity to win is not in the best interest of your players or the long term development of your team.  Doing so is irresponsible, selfish, and not the reason we should be coaching youth athletics.  In addition, communicate with your players on when they were used last for their high school.  If you want to follow a pitch count and days rest, you need to know what they are doing when they are not with you.  Don't be that guy that the high school coaches and arm care experts are talking about.  Once you collected your player’s high school pitch counts, find and follow a recommended rest program similar to the requirements set by USA Baseball in the chart located later in this article.

High School Coaches- This is the area where I hope I don’t sound like a jerk as I have many friends, colleagues, and role models that have been and currently are high school head coaches that follow the rules, are great coaches, and treat their players with respect.  So, let me place a disclaimer that not all high school coaches are idiots.  The vast majority of them are not.  Just as travel baseball has coaches who put winning above the health of their players, so does high school baseball.  Feel free to reference the first paragraph in this blog about the coach from Washington.  Here is the deal.  There are high school coaches that simply don’t care about the longevity of the player.  All they care about is the almighty win.  Within our program, I had three freshman last year that threw 200-300  game pitches per week for an entire high school season.  Unacceptable.  One of them had Tommy John this year and one of them is shut down from pitching for this season as well as the summer.  These are only a few examples and I know that there are many more, but players love to pitch and compete and never want to let down their coach so they don’t stand up for their own health (SEE SECTION BELOW TITLED “HEY PITCHER, STAND UP FOR YOURSELF AND DO YOUR JOB!).  High school coaches should be mandated to follow pitching regulations and days off just like the rest of us should.  Many states have adopted state wide regulations that coaches are to follow.  Why don’t we?  We have guidelines, but no rules.  Let’s get some rules in place that takes the power away from the win at all cost coach.

Moms and Dads I think there are two types of parents that we all need to try to avoid being.

·         First is the "over the top" parent that thinks their kid is the next Nolan Ryan. There are literally thousands of kids just like your kid (or possibly even better).  No one really cares that your son is about to break the Travel League May Strikeout Record.  Seriously, no one.  Except you.  I don't even think your son cares.  Believe it or not, all your kid loves to do is play this great game called baseball and see you cheer for him.  So, don't push him to break that record.  Don’t live vicariously through him.  Follow the rules and protect your son. 

·         The second type of parent is the "Laissez-Faire" parent.  I know you aren’t out there at every practice, lesson, or game.  I also know that you are not the one that sets the pitch count or starting lineup.  And trust me, I know that most coaches are not approachable and quite honestly don’t want your advice.  Your job is not to coach.  Your job is to keep your son healthy.  You make your son brush his teeth every day  and you cook him healthy meals, right?  Understanding what he is going through is a part of that protection process.  Know what is happening on a daily basis.  When your kid comes home from school, ask them how their day was...and not just school.  Find out what they did at practice.  Ask them how many pitches they threw.  You may have to pry the information from them, but it is worth it so you understand the process that they are in.  As for games, I think every parent should know what the head coach’s pitch count limits and days rest policies are prior to the season starting.  Hold the coach accountable.  Remember that your son is more important than a single victory so if the coach is exploiting your son, remind him of what the preseason plan was.  If the coach is staying within the guidelines and following the plan, leave the coach alone.  He has enough going on.

Youth Coaches- Stop putting winning ahead of your player’s health.  No one cares about the trophies that you earn after about a week.  I have an entire box full of district, regional, state, sectional, and national championship trophies.  Notice I said they were in a "box".  I haven't looked at or thought of those trophies in probably 10 years and those years of baseball were some of my most enjoyable time in my life.  Trust me coaches, I understand winning.  I am a coach myself. I understand the thrill of victory.  I also understand how important the goal of winning is for the development and drive of an athlete.  However, it cannot ever trump the protection and the health of our players.  Later in this article you will notice a chart with the requirements for pitch counts and days rest per age group.  These are not recommendations.  They are requirements set forth by USA Baseball, so follow them.  These guys know what they are doing.  Now, with this chart, you hold the ability to protect your kid’s arms to the best of your ability.  If you chose to disregard this chart, you are irresponsible and should not be coaching youth sports. 

Pitching Instructors-  Know your pitchers inside and out.  Understand their routine and know their activity throughout the week.  If they are being overused, you need to say something.  Let the coach know that you know the player is being harmed.  I believe that good pitching instructors are the experts in this industry.  Why?  Because they have lived it and played at the highest level.  In addition, they know the importance of pitch counts, proper mechanics, days rest, etc.  So, pitching coaches, be your player’s advocate.  Stand up for them and go toe to toe with the coach if needed.  Someone needs to protect these kids, and you may be the best bet.  I take my hat off to the pitching instructors who have the stones to do this for their players. 

Programmers- What is a programmer you ask?  A programmer is the person who sets up the training program and the competition schedule for a program for the entire year.  It takes critical thought, countless meetings and great communication with the coaching staff, players, and families involved in that program.  With that said, I believe this is the downfall of most travel and high school programs.  Very few programs take the time on the front end to make sure their plan makes sense for the development and safety of the players.  If you are a part of a program that can’t answer yes to all of the following questions, run and run away fast.

·         Is there someone on staff that has played baseball at an extremely high level of competition who not only knows the proper mechanics, but also the daily struggles players go through physically, mentally, and emotionally?

·         Does your program have someone on staff that understands the human body, how it reacts to underuse, how it reacts to overuse, the effects of proper nutrition as well as improper nutrition, understands what prehab is and how vastly important it is?

·         Do the coaches understand the importance of a rest period and tapering?

·         Is there a trainer that is not only nationally certified, but do they understand that 8 year olds don’t train the same as 13 year olds and 13 year olds don’t train the same as 18 year olds?  Can your trainer recognize imbalances within the body that may lead to technique flaws and eventually injuries?

·         Does your program take natural breaks from competition? 

·         Is there an arm care program and is it a standard component of the training program?

 
 Key Attributes to Year Round Arm Health

Now that we have established the fact that we are ALL responsible, let’s look at some key attributes to arm health.

·         Keep Pitch Counts and know the number of days rest needed.   The Guidelines set forth by the Medical and Safety Advisory Committee of USA Baseball are as follows:

11



12 

·         Take 3-4 Consecutive Months Off per Year.  Pitchers need to take off 3-4 months per year.  Throwing is an unnatural motion.  Giving yourself time off allows your shoulder and elbow to recover naturally.  Research also shows that throwing year round increase muscle imbalance which increases the possibility of future injuries. We shut down our pitchers in October, November, and December and then reintroduce them to the mound in January.  These pitchers are still able to practice, do dry drills, work on core strength, but just not throw above their head.  Understand that even the high school players, based on this schedule, are able to play games from April-September, take off October, November, December, and then use January and February to get their arm back in shape.

·         Be Smart about Showcases.  Many people have blasted showcase companies for running showcases the entire year.  Why?  Because these people make a living focusing on getting players into college and pro ball?  These guys need to pay the bills too, right?  Asking a showcase company to only run showcases in the summer would be like asking a pharmacy to only sell vitamins during the cold and flu season.  Or asking a HVAC company to only operate during the changing of the seasons.  Issues with showcase companies are the issue of the coaches and the players not shutting guys down at the right time or changing their plan.   If you are off of throwing, you are off of throwing, period.  I don't care if UCLA asks you to come to their camp in December when you are taking time off, you have to say no.  In addition, if you aren't prepared for a camp or showcase, why would you ever want to go?  So you can underperform and lower your stock?  So you can throw with max effort and hurt yourself?  Showcases are an invaluable part of the recruiting process.  And most college players would not be where they are if it weren't for showcases or showcase tournaments.  You are going to be bombarded with the opportunity to attend hundreds of showcases.  Be okay with saying no when you are not ready.  For our players, they should only attend showcases when their arm is in shape.

 ·         Understand the effect of your secondary position.  Even at a young age, you should be smart about your second position.  You should not catch a game and then pitch a game and do that for a 50-60 game season.  Your arm will not ever have a chance to recover.  Your second position should be a position that allows you to rest your arm with minimal throwing.  When you think about pitching, don’t just count the number of throws from the mound!  A catcher will throw the ball just as often as a pitcher will.  So a 75 pitch game results in almost that many throws by the catcher.  On top of that, you have to take into account throws down to second, catcher pickoff attempts, pregame infield, etc.  I would recommend that a great second position for a primary pitcher is outfield, 1st base, or even second base.  I would avoid at all costs being a pitcher and a catcher.
 
·         Follow an established and proven Arm Care Program.  There are a lot of arm care programs out there that revolve around band work, long toss, over weighted balls, underweighted balls, etc.  Some are wonderful and some are somewhat controversial.  I would recommend using something that is proven effective.  At Rhino Baseball, we use Crossover Symmetry year round for our players.  Crossover Symmetry is a medically designed rotator cuff and scapular strengthening system which enhances shoulder health and performance. Crossover Symmetry was founded in 2006 by a professional baseball player and a physical therapist with the goal to provide a practical, structured, and efficient shoulder strengthening system for athletes. Crossover Symmetry is currently used by professional athletes in the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL and over 75% of major NCAA Division I Universities.   Since implementing the Crossover Symmetry program, we have seen increased velocity, decreased arm pain, a sharp decline in arm injuries, and no dead arms.  Prior to Crossover Symmetry, we had a player to arm injury ratio of 1:18.  Since Crossover Symmetry, the ratio has dropped to 1:300.

·         Understand the importance of full body strength and multiple sports.   Some programs limit their players to only playing one sport.  I am all for becoming a one sport athlete after a few years of high school.  But telling a kid they have to quit their other sports in order to make a team is absolutely crazy.  I was able to play Division 1 college baseball and play two sports in high school.  I am a firm believer that playing multiple sports is a critical component to the overall development of an athlete.  Playing multiple sports allows players to increase full body strength, core strength, speed, endurance, balance, and overall athleticism.  This increase in full body development will also help with injury prevention.  In addition, it gives their bodies a chance to rest which is a natural remedy to injuries.  
 
 

The Inevitability of Arm Issues

I mentioned earlier that throwing a baseball is an unnatural movement.  We are designed to have our hands be below our shoulder.  That is why a softball pitcher can throw, throw, and throw some more and be okay.  Realize that some arm injuries will occur no matter what.  Our goal as coaches, parents, trainers, and players should be to minimize arm injuries by following the steps listed in this article.  

 

Hey Pitcher…Stand up for Yourself and Do Your Job!

Pitchers, some of you will have amazing coaches, trainers, and parents.  They will protect you and guide you.  They will increase your chance of keeping you healthy and making you successful.  But, some of you will not realize it or the gift that God has given you.  I am begging you to realize it.  Don’t be lazy.  Put down the remote or the controller and work.  You ultimately are in control of how successful you will become.  There are many of you that your talent will not allow you to play for much longer.  However, there are some of you that your talent will allow a long career; do not disappoint!   Many of us would kill for your ability and talent level.  Your job right now is to simply work hard. And remember, often this hard work is done when no one else is watching.  Be accountable.

In addition, you need to stand up for yourself.  Some parents will read this and say, “My son is only 15 years old.  He shouldn’t have to stand up for himself.  That is the coach’s job.”  That belief is only half of the truth.  Sure, it is the coach’s job.  However, if you don’t teach your son and encourage him to stand up for himself, he may never.  Teach him what it means to stand up for what is right.  We are surrounded by timid people who get walked all over every day.  Teach your son the importance of standing up for what is right and more importantly himself.

The Takeaway

Baseball is America’s Pastime.  Always has been and always will be.  It is both timeless and ever evolving.  Yesteryears pitchers have evolved into today’s pitchers with exploding fastballs, bat shattering cutters, menacing changeups, dancing knucklers, and turbo sliders that make even the most talented hitters look completely puzzled.  Never being much of a pitcher, I became a catcher.  I had a front row view and was always in awe of the dominance by some of the pitchers on my staff.  I think that pitchers are the absolute center of what is so great about baseball.  

With advances in both technology and facilities, year round baseball is now an option for just about every kid in this country.   However, the ability to play year round has also created some serious issues that need to be addressed.  The good news is these issues are being addressed: Research is being conducted, safeguards are being put in place, arm care programs are being established and implemented, and most importantly people are being informed of the dangers of overuse.   

Remember, we are ALL Responsible…Coaches, Parents, Instructors, Programmers, and Players. Let’s stop pointing fingers at who is to blame for the injuries and work together to achieve the  common goal of keeping our pitchers on the mound for as long as possible! 

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# Robert LaPiana 2014-05-21 00:41
Thank you Coach Greg for the important information for the entire organization to follow.
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# Jasoon Uldrych 2014-05-21 12:35
This is a perfect article to send coaches as a reminder and heads up at this point in our season
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# Erik Bertaud 2014-05-23 03:56
Well written. I agree with all of this and am glad to see that I also am well within' the requirements just with my natural thought process. Thanks so much for the chart. Having a very talented lefty pitcher for a son, this is invaluable!
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