Pitching arm injuries can mean a lot more than some discomfort and a missed start or two. Pitchers who sustain severe damage to their pitching arm can lose the rest of their season, or even their career.
Children’s arms are even more vulnerable to injury, since a young pitcher’s body hasn’t matured. Imagine being a promising 14 or 15 year old fireballer, ignoring the warning signs and pitching through pain, and messing up your arm to where you’ll never be able to play baseball at a serious level again. It’s really not uncommon.
The good news is that over time pitching arm injuries have become better understood, such injuries are avoidable to a significant degree, and governing bodies, managers, and coaches have become much more educated and proactive at protecting their pitchers from injuries. It is commonplace at different levels of youth baseball today, for instance, to have mandatory maximum pitch counts for pitchers.
Let’s look at some of the most important ways of minimizing the risk of pitching injuries, including permanent damage to young arms:
1. Condition the whole body, not just the arm
It is sometimes said that “pitchers throw with their legs.” No, this isn’t a reference to some sort of circus trick, it just means that the throwing motion involves the whole body, with much of the strength coming up from the legs as the pitcher strides into the pitch. To focus solely on a pitcher’s arm would be like thinking all that matters to a soccer player’s success and health are his feet, or for a boxer, his fists. Pitchers should regularly exercise the whole body, watch their diet, and in general stay in top shape. If you’re going to approach the sport seriously, it’s an obligation you owe to yourself and your teammates.
2. Warm up
Stretching and warming up can seem tedious, and it’s always tempting to skip this stage or perform it in a perfunctory manner in one’s rush to get out there and perform for real, but to do so is a big mistake.
Before ever throwing a ball, a pitcher should jog or otherwise loosen up for several minutes, then do a series of stretching exercises. After that and before entering a game, the pitcher should make practice throws for ten minutes or so, starting with throws of about half effort and gradually picking up the intensity until the last handful of pitches are at game speed.
This is important to do every day one pitches, but it is especially imperative on colder days, when it’s a good idea to do a little extra warm up.
3. Cool down
While the importance of stretching and warming up has long been recognized (if not always adhered to ideally), what many athletes and their coaches do not fully appreciate is that cooling down can be very important as well.
When a pitcher is done throwing, he should stretch his throwing arm for five minutes, and then ice it down if there is any discomfort to reduce swelling. The posterior capsular stretch, which can be learned at www.safethrow.com, has been shown to reduce the tightness in the posterior-inferior glenohumeral ligament in the shoulder that can lead to pain and serious injury.
4. Use proper mechanics
Throwing incorrectly can put stress on certain parts of the arm and greatly increase the risk of injury over time. Throwing a breaking ball incorrectly (or attempting to throw a breaking ball at all at too young an age) can be especially abusive to the arm.
5. Avoid pitching too often
There’s a reason that pitcher is the one position in baseball that is not an everyday position. A pitcher’s arm needs a significant period of recovery between pitching assignments. There is no golden rule as far as how long that period needs to be, since there’s obviously a difference between pitching a complete game and facing one batter in a relief appearance, but pitchers need to be shut down for awhile after each time they pitch. Though of course they should still be working out and staying in shape between pitching assignments.
6. Avoid pitching too long
Not only should pitching assignments not be too frequent, they should also not extend for too many pitches. Besides the formal pitch count ceilings used at some levels, managers and coaches need to be sensitive to an individual’s capabilities and stamina, and to remove pitchers short of any such official maximum when warranted.
7. Recognize the signs of fatigue
One of the difficult but crucial distinctions in sports is when pushing oneself through adversity is a laudable characteristic of toughness and courage, and when it is reckless, self-destructive behavior.
As an athlete you’re expected to suck it up and play through pain, discomfort, and fatigue. Think about the utter disdain that football’s Bill Parcells has for almost all injured football players, for example, as if their being unable or unwilling to play is a sign of some kind of laziness or weakness.
The problem is there are times when “gutting it out” risks serious injury. And that happens to be the case with pitching. Beyond a certain point of fatigue, a pitcher is wrong to show his competitive nature and toughness by continuing, because as the pitching arm becomes strained with overuse, the body naturally adjusts the throwing motion in such a way as to alter the mechanics for the worse. You can pitch beyond that point of fatigue, but you can’t pitch with the proper mechanics, and that’s what’s important.
Even if a pitcher isn’t admitting that he needs to come out of a game, an observant coach will make that decision for him after picking up on the fact that his control is diminished, his velocity is diminished, he’s taking more time between pitches, his pitching motion is rushed and awkward without a full follow through, he is grimacing when he pitches, or he is stretching or shaking or swinging or rubbing his arm between pitches.
Some of the causes of pitching arm injuries, and the measures to take to reduce the risk of pitching arm injuries, are a matter of specialized knowledge, and some are a matter of common sense. Wise monitoring of pitchers and how they pitch will enable them to pitch effectively over longer careers.