Little League Elbow with Catchers is more Common than with Pitchers – Who Knew?
The following suggested solutions for little league elbow complaints for the catching position may be what is necessary.
I read the article at the American Journal of Sports Medicine, which someone circulated on a linked in-group discussion. I figured the article was breaking news, about “little league elbow” (elbow injury where small separation of the growth plate occurs) being more common in little league catchers, than other players, even more than pitchers. The article is at http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/32/1/79.full?sid=6c9d8bda-d8df-430b-a54c-2054dbd6edb2
Knowing the study was actually from 2004 surprised me, as I did not know of this study’s results. Shame on me, but it attests to how important and available information does not travel well, whereas, negative stories of bad coaching and parenting fly around at internet speed. The baseball community must do a better job of circulating this type important news, so things can begin to change for the betterment of our youth athletes.
Little League Elbow Injuries may be Preventable
Of course, the most prominent overuse injury in baseball is overthrowing, with little league elbow the most common of those injuries. I must point out that I believe most youth players do not throw enough to develop their arms, but those with the strongest arms are the ones with the risk of over using their arms to the point of injury. Strong armed players put dreams of winning and stardom in adults’ heads, so they use those players and practice them beyond safe ways.
As many research issues, the study about little league elbow with catchers creates as many questions and speculations than answers, but its findings are noteworthy, to say the least. I have some thoughts on the study and some suggestions, although I have no study or research to back up the things that may help limit sore arms with catchers.
Little League Elbow Observations
Observation 1 – The results that catchers show more arm damage than pitchers should not be a surprise. Coaches, me included, forget that catchers have a follow up throw, after every pitched ball. Just thinking of all the pitches catchers receives in games, bullpens, pre-game infield practice – the follow up number of throws add up quickly.
Observation 2 – The study’s conclusion speculated that throwing from the knees might be the cause of the abundance of arm soreness in catchers. That is probably a contributing factor and the reason I cringe at throwing drills that do not use players’ legs such as on the knee throwing or stand up throws, when players just rotate their upper bodies without stepping to throw. Pitching coach after pitching coach talk about how important the legs and big rear end muscles are, so it makes little sense to have players warm up and perform drills without the legs. Maybe those type drills are OK to make a point about throwing, but coaches should limit those type throws or use them with lighter weight balls, which put less strain on arms.
Observation 3 – Pitching and catching do not mix. The study failed to say whether the players studied were only catchers, but somehow at the little league level, I doubt it. Generally, it takes a strong arm to make the throws from the catching position, so it is very enticing to have catchers also pitch. The problem is obvious, as little rest time is available for catchers as teams usually only have a couple of players to play the catching position. It is common to see a catcher pitch one game and catch the next, either the same day or the following day. That is not a good scenario for a throwing arm of any age. Additionally, players often change their throwing motion on pitching and catching throws, which is another factor that may not be good for the arm.
Observation 4 – Along the same lines as the previous point, it is rare to hear of major league catchers or any other position player, needing Tommy John surgery to repair the elbow, and major league catchers never pitch, which backs up the danger of doing both. It is maximum throwing, as constantly done with pitching, that puts the most stress on the arm. Catchers do all out throwing to the bases, which suggests that their arms may not be loose enough to cut it loose in games, when a 100% throw is necessary to catch a stray base runner. Therefore, catchers should throw balls back to pitchers with at least 50% effort after each pitch to make sure the arm stretches out before having to fire the ball on a future steal attempt.
Observation 5 – Coaches can limit the amount of throwing catchers do in a day and week. Possibilities for this include having others warm baseball pitchers up for bullpen sessions, have catchers roll balls back to pitchers in practice, and lower catchers, who pitch, pitch limits in games. Additionally, having catchers stand to throw balls back to pitchers may be cumbersome but healthier and worthwhile, if throwing from the knees is detrimental, as the study surmises.
Observation 6 – Throwing tears down the muscles and without ways of rebuilding them back quickly, injuries often follow. Weakness leads to the importance of some sort of strength training, even for youth players. I believe even young athletes should do some age appropriate strength training, especially for baseball players muscles around the arm and shoulders.
I am not sure if follow up studies have been made on the little league elbow, but I hope so. Sports medicine findings are crucial to improve the health of athletes, and we must listen to the research, spread the word about it, and use it to make the game better. Finally, coaching good throwing mechanics for every player must be a top coaching priority.