by James Alvarado
Did you know that injuries are 10x more likely to occur in April than September? Did you also know that 50% of starting pitchers will go on the IL as well as 34% of all relievers? The research may seem extreme and alarming, but the numbers don’t lie. There are multiple reasons as to why this is happening and they all lead to a common theme, a lack of PREPARATION. The primary factor that predicts injury risk in throwers is overuse – making high school kids primarily susceptible. Since high school sports have become so competitive these days, we see more and more kids start to “specialize” in a particular sport very early and begin to rack up an unnecessary amount of innings. The problem with this is that these long seasons lead to short off seasons which is needed to prepare the body for the physical demands of throwing a baseball. Here are a few strategies to staying healthy and on the mound.
Monitor your throwing program
Today, young athletes are more unprepared athletically because of early sports specialization. As technology has increased over the years, kids are becoming more and more sedentary and not “playing” outside as much. Less variety = less development and introducing many different movement patterns at a young age is crucial for long term athletic development. Specializing at a young age will also increase the risk of any shoulder or elbow injury as throwing volume is highly associated with these types of injuries.
What to do:
Ages 9-14: This is the age where the “rule of thirds” is essential for long-term athletic development. Play 3 different sports, 4 months apart, allowing the body a rest from repetitive movement patterns which will greatly reduce the risk of overuse injury. Strength training is recommended year-round.
Ages 15-16: This is an age where kids will start to focus more on baseball, but it is still recommended to play another sport as well. As throwing volume tends to increase throughout this time, (Summer/Fall ball, winter lessons, clinics, showcases, etc.) the 4-5 months away from baseball should be solely focused on preparing the body for the physical demands of throwing a baseball. Strength training is recommended year-round.
Ages 17+: This is an age where kids will start to specialize, but it does not mean that you should play year-round. We tend to see a high number of kids throw in showcases, play summer/fall ball, thinking they need to throw every opportunity they get. Pitchers who have been injured have attended 4-5x more showcases than their uninjured counterparts. Establishing a smart throwing program is an absolute must at this time. It is normal to see kids throw 8-9 months TOPS during this time, but the other 3-4 months must be focused around improving strength, mobility, any asymmetries, and faulty movement patterns. Strength training is also recommended year-round.
Taking a pro-active approach in the off-season is the best investment you can make in your baseball career. Instead of throwing for numerous months after the season has ended, put the glove down and work on improving your strength. Not only will strength training help you throw faster, but it will also help decrease injuries during the long baseball season. And no, an “arm-care” program won’t save you from any type of injury. The physical demands of throwing a baseball involve much more than just the shoulder and elbow, but the body as a whole. Velocity is created from driving off the back leg, transferring force through the core, through the lats, through strong scapular stabilizers, good thoracic mobility, good posterior cuff strength, and good pronation. As you can see, strength in these muscles are needed to create high throwing velocities as well as protection to the joints from the stress involved from throwing a baseball. Now the key to all of this is to find a coach who can assess you properly, identify muscular imbalances, flexibility deficits, faulty movement patterns, and then create a tailored program suitable for YOU.
Mobility/Soft Tissue Work
What most people fail to realize, is that a good mobility program is needed to supplement your strength training program. And just like a good strength training program, a well-developed mobility program should be INDIVIDUALIZED to YOUR specific needs. The whole “one size fits all” model is outdated and deficient because of differences in anatomical structure/adaptations and mechanics. Not all pitchers need to be loose. And in these certain cases, over-stretching someone “loose” will create more instability in the joint, increasing the risk of injury. Now, on the other hand if you cannot physically rotate through your thoracic spine for example, what do you think will eventually happen over time from continuous throwing? The body will find a way to create that range of motion elsewhere, increasing unnecessary stress to the low back or shoulder.
When it comes to soft tissue work, it is often underutilized and should be a bigger priority in not only throwers, but all athletes. Poor tissue quality can increase the chances of getting injured due to the decreased range of motion. One of the biggest issues baseball players tend to face is the lack of flexibility in the elbow extensors. This is due to the fact that there are insane amounts of eccentric muscle action required to decelerate the 2,500 degrees/second of elbow extension that occurs during pitching. Some of the benefits of soft tissue work include; relieving stress at the tissue and joint, maintain normal length/tension at the joint, and improve joint ROM (range of motion).
These are just a few strategies to incorporate in your off-season preparation so you can stay healthy during the season. When approaching the off-season, the number one priority should be to increase strength, mobility, and put the glove down. The overuse of the shoulder and elbow will only lead to an increase risk of injury. Take the necessary time to prepare the body as a whole with tailored strength training, mobility and soft-tissue work.