Youth Pitching Recommendations: No Curveballs?

Youth Pitching Recommendations: No Curveballs?

This is the start of my favorite season. It’s not the daffodils and spring thaw, but baseball season. I’ve spent the past week celebrating Major League Baseball’s opening day, David Ortiz’s last home opener in a Red Sox uniform, and the Chicago Cubs starting the year with the best record. My clinic even celebrated “opening day,” with physical therapists and administrators wearing their favorite jerseys. As a sports and orthopedic specialist, it’s also the time of year when I receive lots of questions regarding youth pitching. "Is the curveball safe for my child to throw? How many pitches can he or she throw each day?"

In 2012 the New York Times published an article regarding an ongoing debate in baseball: should young athletes avoid throwing curveballs? While a number of research studies have demonstrated that the force of throwing a curveball is no higher than that of a fastball, as a former NCAA collegiate softball player turned physical therapist, I fear that coaches, athletes, and parents could improperly interpret these results. I strongly encourage those involved in Little League baseball to re-evaluate these studies and seek an expert opinion prior to allowing your players to throw curveballs. If a child is skilled enough to throw a curveball, they are likely a great player, one that coaches may want to pitch more than sports medicine experts recommend. I have witnessed this overuse of many talented young athletes, at the expense of their developing bodies. Significant injuries, specifically to the ulnar collateral ligament, can occur when pitchers’ throwing mechanics are altered due to fatigue. These injuries have resulted in a growing number of Tommy John surgeries, which require lengthy rehabilitation.  

According to Dr. James Andrews, Orthopedic Surgeon and Founder of the American Sports Medicine Institute, “For pitchers with proper mechanics, the force of throwing a curveball is no greater than for a fastball. But that’s not what happens in reality on the baseball field. Many kids don’t have proper mechanics or enough neuromuscular control, or they are fatigued when throwing curveballs. Things break down.” To protect youth players from fatigued pitching, I strongly encourage athletes to adhere to the following pitch count guidelines provided by Pitch Smart of the MLB.

For many, baseball is no longer limited to a single season. There’s a growing trend to specialize in one sport year round, in hopes of becoming the next Nolan Ryan. Unfortunately, sport specialization is associated with some detrimental effects, notably the risk of overuse injuries. In a recent nationwide study of youth pitchers, researchers determined that young athletes continue to exhibit may risky behaviors that are associated with increased likelihood of fatigued pitching and injury. I love baseball. I love kids playing baseball. But remember, it’s the responsibility of parents and coaches to follow these guidelines throughout the year to keep young athletes safe and on the field.

 

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