With many baseball and softball teams in the country hitting the road weekend after weekend, overuse injuries has become a hot topic.
Teams across the country have been known to play at least 50 or more games in a summer playing virtually every weekend during the summer and even into the fall.
In Cleveland, there are several teams between roughly the ages 7-14 that played travel during the summer. Many of those players played in the Cleveland Park Commission when they weren’t playing travel ball. When teams in Cleveland play travel ball, they normally play on an average of one to two tournaments a month from roughly February to June. Some teams do play in the fall.
Dr. Brent Smith, a local physician at the Family Medical Clinic in Cleveland, said parents have to be careful about how much their children play during the summer.
“You have to balance the good with the bad,” Smith said. “Any activity that has kids out exercising and being social at a young age is great. The problem with travel ball, is it is often done in conjunction with several other leagues. They’ll play city league, they’ll play travel ball then they’ll do all-star teams. The problem is it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back were too much of a good thing is a bad thing.”
Anytime athletes are playing many games through out the course of the year, proper conditioning is key.
Ryan Short, who is a physical therapist at Advance Physical Therapy and has children that play travel ball, said baseball and softball players need to do more than just toss the ball around before games.
“They need to warm-up more than just the arm,” Short said. “They need to warm-up the entire body. Jogging or agility drills such as high knees or crossovers are good. You can do walking lunges, some static stretches for hamstring, rotation stretches for your trunk — other things than besides saying ‘Hey, guys and girls, grab a ball and go warm-up.’”
Short said players should drink plenty of water.
“Not a lot of these kids are really drinking enough water,” Short said. “Dehydration does not occur during a sport. It occurs before it.”
When baseball players are pitching at a young age, studies have shown that it is best for a child to stick with the basic pitches. According to www.theandrewsinstitute.com, baseball players, on average, are recommended to begin throwing a fastball at age 8, give or take approximately two years, and a change-up at age 10, give or take approximately three years. Pitches like curveballs, sliders and other breaking pitches aren’t recommended to be tried until a child preferably reaches his teen years.
According to Short, one thing that parents need to keep in mind when their kids are playing travel ball is the time when the child’s body begins to grow. How a child is developing can help determine what kind of pitches a kid may throw in a sport like baseball.
“Each child will develop different,” Short said. “It’s not by age, it’s where they’re at as they’re going through the developmental cycle. It’s not worth wrecking a child’s arm throwing any type of junk ball. You can throw a fastball and a change-up. Those are your two safest pitches. After they start going through the changes, they can develop other types of pitches. It’s always better to be too conservative than too aggressive.”
Smith said a pitcher shouldn’t progress to a second pitch if the child hasn’t mastered the first pitch.
“The way I approach it, they need to learn their fastball first,” Smith said. “It’s just rare back and throwing it, but they can not learn another pitch until they can locate their fastball consistently. They need to be able to put their fastball where they want it on a consistent basis and then you work in the change-up. When they can locate their fastball and change-up on a consistent basis, then they can start throwing a curveball. You will find that this is when they’re mechanically ready to move on to the next pitch.”
The art of pitching is different when you look at baseball and softball. Pitchers throw overhead in baseball, while pitchers throw underhand in fast pitch softball.
In baseball, many injuries such as elbow injuries for pitchers have been widely reported. In fast pitch softball, girls tend to suffer different kinds of injuries.
“In girls softball, you’ll see either more knee injuries or shoulder blade injuries because girls will usually slouch or hunch over more,” Short said. “They’ll have more trouble on the back of their shoulder blade from the art of throwing a softball.”
Short said it’s good to have a pitch count in both baseball and softball. He also added that just repeating the same motion over and over again will cause injury, especially when the child’s body is still developing.
“Repetition can be just as bad as poor technique,” Short said. “Even if you have good technique and you do it too much, you’re still going to have a problem with a young child because you can’t teach an eight-year-old the same way you teach an 18-year-old.”
Short added that when kids bodies are in the development stage, the athlete can go through some tough times.
“If your child has grown four inches in the last two months and then their shoulder starts to hurt or knee starts to hurt, it’s probably because they’ve grown a lot,” Short said. “They don’t know what to do with their body parts.
“They don’t know how to run as coordinated and they don’t know how to throw as coordinated, then they end up hurting something because they’re playing too many games with body parts that they don’t know how to use.”
One of the biggest concerns when it comes to athletes playing travel ball is kids getting burned out on the sport as well as suffering from overuse injuries.
Many times, kids that play travel ball have been known to stick to that one without enjoying other sports. Medical experts have defined this as sport specialization. Playing just one sport might not be beneficial for the player.
In a position statement released by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, it said: “There is concern that early sport specialization may increase rates of overuse injury and sport burnout, but this relationship has yet to be demonstrated. The statement also said, “Diversified sports training during early and middle adolescence may be more effective in developing elite-level skills in the primary sport.”
Smith said kids at a young age don’t need to limit their athletic experiences to just one sport.
“The kids that are athletic can be doing two or three teams worth of baseball all year round at an age where they really should be experimenting and having several sport experiences,” Smith said.
There are cases where that child that plays travel baseball or softball will go into another competitive sport right after the summer or travel season ends.
According to Smith, athletes need to have a time in the year where they can have an extended rest period.
“The other problem with travel ball is it targets kids that are the gifted athletes,” Smith said. “When you think about it, they’re also playing football and they’re the kid that runs track. It adds one more time where they could be resting, but they’re not.
“There needs to be a solid three month block out of the year, and it needs to be continuous, where they don’t play any sports at all. That’s both for their mental well being, physical recovery and the opportunity for a kid to be a kid.
“Travel ball is not the devil in itself. In my short time here, I have seen close to a half dozen overuse injuries that resulted in kids that have exhibited too much time playing sports and not enough time resting,” Smith added.