What are the workload constraints when managing a youth athlete’s throwing program?

With Tommy John surgery and other throwing related injuries becoming more prevalent in the modern-day pitching population, particularly for youth athletes in early adolescence, it is becoming more critical for athletes, parents, and coaches to monitor workload and avoid over usage. In Lyman’s 2001 seminal study, it was found that roughly 50% of youth athletes aged 9-14 experienced arm pain in either their elbow or shoulder at one point throughout the season. Follow up research has found rates of arm pain in youth athletes from anywhere between 26%-51% of the surveyed population. Many studies have investigated the root causes of these pain rates, attributing increasing injury rates (among other things) to rising usage rates, poor biomechanics, secondary pitch usage, and early specialization. While it is unclear as to how much each factor can explain single-handedly injury rates in the youth population, it is important to consider each effect when building out a long-term training program with each individual athlete.  

The important academic findings when building out a training plan and managing workload for youth athletes are listed below- We find it crucial to be aware of these findings when working with youth athletes:

-          Youth athletes aged 9-14 years old had a 35% higher rate of elbow pain when throwing >75 pitches per game. (Lyman, 2002)

-          Youth athletes aged 9-14 years old that threw more than 600 pitchers per year were more than twice as likely to experience arm pain. (Lyman, 2001)

-          For athletes aged 14-20 years old, pitching for more than 8 months throughout the year resulted in a 5 fold increase in the odds of injury, pitching more than 80 pitches per appearance resulted in a 4 fold increase, pitching regularly with fatigue resulted in a 36 fold increase. (Olsen, 2006)

-          Youth pitchers who pitch more than 100 innings per calendar year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured. (Fleisig, 2011)

-          There is mixed evidence that throwing breaking pitches early in an athlete’s development is detrimental, with more contemporary biomechanical analysis finding no relationship between breaking pitches and increased stress levels. (Grantham, 2015)

-          Athletes who are bigger, taller, and throw harder are most susceptible to injury. A 10MPH increase in ball velocity was found to likely increase injury rate by 12%. (Chalmers, 2015)

-          Playing on more than one team at a single point in time during the season is correlated with a 22% increase in injury rate. (Chalmers, 2015)

-          In population of athletes who underwent TJ surgery, 85% of the injured population were overused. (Petty, 2004)

-          30% of athletes that reported having arm pain said that the pain caused them to have less fun while playing. (Makhni, 2014)

-          After setting Little League guidelines regarding recommended usage for youth athlete workload, 46% of coaches reported that players were reporting arms that were less sore. (Fleisig, 2009)

-          Only roughly 43% of youth coaches could correctly answer questions pertaining to MLB PitchSmart recommendations. (Fazarale, 2012) 31% of coaches were found to not believe that pitch count numbers were related to injury. (Ahmad, 2012)

-          There is little evidence that early specialization leads to an increased likelihood of playing at higher levels, and athletes who do specialize early must take the requisite steps to take proper amounts of rest and time off from playing. (LaPrade, 2016)

-          Coaches, parents, and athletes also must be wary of undertraining as well. Most TJ’s occur early in the Spring season, most likely a function of not properly managing workload before a highly competitive season.

At Driveline, our youth throwing program is predicated on following MLB PitchSmart guidelines, while also heavily emphasizing proper warm-up and recovery to ensure that athletes are picking up healthy habits moving forward. Our belief is that baseball is meant to be fun, so anything that we can do to facilitate the enjoyment of the game within younger athletes will allow them to reap all the benefits of playing the sport we love.

Setting forth a program that emphasizes process over outcomes, the long-term over the short-term, and a manageable amount of competition training on a yearly basis will lead to healthy development in younger athletes. Throwing is stressful, particularly as a pitcher- but that does not necessarily mean that an athlete is guaranteed to suffer a serious injury. If programmed responsibly, we believe athletes can have long and successful careers.

For more information regarding how we program youth athletes, please visit the links below or email in to support@drivelinebaseball.com.

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