Putting Little Leaguers on a pitch count is a good idea, but this move is only part of the solution to protect the pitching arms of kids.
Over the past decade there has been an epidemic of arm problems among baseball players from the high school level on down through Little League. Stories of kids getting Tommy John surgery and stories of arm problems of all kinds are commonplace, as kids are playing more organized baseball and throwing more baseballs.
Adding to the problem is that kids are more sophisticated and now throw pitches that immature arms are not ready to handle; curve ball, slider, screwball, etc. More pitches + more demanding pitches = more arm problems.
Little League officials recognized that their sport had a serious problem and have taken steps to remedy the situation by putting pitchers on a pitch count to the tune of 55 per week. The 2008 season is the second season where Little League is tracking – and limiting – the weekly amount of pitches after a two-year pilot program to work out the kinks.
For the uninitiated, this means that Little League coaches will need to track how many pitches a kid throws in a given period of time and stop them as they reach their limit. In the old days, there was a 6-innings per week limit that was easier to track, but a little less exact. As a result of some research done by orthopedic doctors at the American Sports Medicine Institute Little League decided to adopt the pitch count program.
Little League has yet to institute a ban on kids throwing curve balls but is participating in a study being done by the University of North Carolina that’s looking at the effect of pitching on young arms. However, don’t jump to conclusions and think that curve balls are guaranteed to be the culprit.
But putting kids on pitch counts is only part of the solution. Kids are playing too much baseball – throwing the ball too much – and until this trend reverses the pitch count rule will be less effective than it could be, and will be less effective preventing overuse arm injuries. Just like other youth sports the “all-year-round bug” has bitten baseball, in that organized baseball is being played during just about every month of the year.
Baseball should not be played all year round and no sport illustrates the reasons why sports should be limited to certain months of the calendar than baseball. The simple reason is that the act of throwing a baseball is one of the more physically demanding actions in all of sports, and pitching exponentially increases this demand.
Kids need pitch counts and rest between seasons. Little League and high school baseball starts in early March in the Northeast, then moves into the various all-star and summer leagues and continues into the fall. Kids are playing baseball for 8 months straight, taking a few weeks off and then playing winter baseball. Proponents of this kind of grind want parents to believe that the more the kids play, the better that they will be.
As a former athlete and a current expert in dealing with kids as they develop athletically, I state unequivocally that this is incorrect. Any coach – of any sport at any level – that says kids will get better by playing a sport year round should be avoided and really shouldn’t be working with children.
Coaches who preach specialization in one sport are out of touch with reality and should be ignored. Particularly for young, developing athletes, specializing in a sport or participating in two sports at the same time – especially during the competitive phase of one sport – is really a bad idea. Nothing good can come from playing/participating in one sport at the exclusion of others and practicing one sport while playing another.
Letting a kid play baseball 6, 7, or 8 months of the year is a sure way to physical and mental burnout and will result in a kid being less than he/she can be. A kid who hurts their arm at 12, 13 or 15-years old will never be the same again, and all the miles put on a pitching/throwing arm at this developmental stage can come back to haunt the kid in high-school and college.
The problem with youth baseball is that kids are playing too much baseball throughout the year, and limiting pitches during all of the baseball “seasons” is a half measure. Until kids cut back on how much baseball they play during the year arm problems will continue to be a big problem, with or without pitch counts.