Throwing is a basic human instinct. The man has been picking up and throwing rocks since, well… the Stone Age.
As with everything we do, mankind eventually looked for ways to throw rocks better. We invented slingshots and catapults, so stones would travel faster and longer.
We want to throw baseballs better, too. So, we tinker with the delivery system they were made for. We change human bodies.
Just like slingshots can be dangerous, tinkering with the human body has proven to be hazardous as well. The game used to be played by firemen and plumbers whose arms rarely wore down.
Today we see increasing numbers and worsening severity of injuries in professional athletes groomed to throw baseballs their whole life. Unfortunately, millions of young players suffer arm injuries that end careers before they start.
That doesn’t need to happen to you, though. Here are eight ways to prevent arm injuries in baseball so you can stay on the field.
Ways to Prevent Arm Injuries in Baseball
Don’t throw cold
For over 20 years, I played and coached baseball without any arm trouble. Then one day, I found a baseball on the beach and decided to throw it into the ocean as far as I could.
After four months in a sling and a year of rehab, I still can’t lift my arm over my head without eliciting ominous cracks and a twinge of pain. Never throw hard until you have properly prepared yourself. Warm up with stretches and exercises so your arm knows what is coming.
Whether you pitch or play a position, keep your arm warm during a game. If you play in cool weather, use a sweatshirt between innings and do a little stretching to generate heat in the joints.
Always use proper form
There is no one perfect way to throw a ball, but there are definitely ways to not throw one. Every baseball player should find a throwing motion that allows him (or her) to be accurate with some speed and does not hurt. It should be fluid and feel perfectly normal to you.
Professional coaches might tweak your motion to add power or accuracy. If the change results in pain, fatigue, or a hitch, tell the coach you need to try something else.
Once you find your motion, use it for every throw. Great fielders move into position to catch the ball where they can throw it from their normal position. If they dive for a ball, they hop to their feet before they throw. If you are going to hurt your arm, it will probably happen on a throw from an unnatural position or bad angle.
Pitchers should practice their wind up and delivery at half speed before they throw hard. Do it in slow motion until it feels right. Then speed it up gradually. Just like fielders, when you find an effective and comfortable motion, stick with it. Pitchers get hurt when they deviate from their delivery in a game.
REST… during games and practice
Rest is important. Pitchers can’t pitch for two hours in practice. They should not alternate with catchers in practice and they should definitely not play catcher in games. The catcher throws as much as a pitcher. There is no rest for the arm behind the home plate.
Sports scientists and orthopedists recommend specific pitch limits for younger players. Following their advice will keep your arm safer.
REST… between games
Professional pitchers follow a strict regimen between starts so their arms can recover. A typical routine includes several days of rest.
Younger pitchers want to pitch as often as they can. One common mistake is pitching for more than one team. This makes it difficult to monitor pitch counts and leads to overuse of the arm. Leagues with a travel team should limit pitchers and catchers to two games per week if they play for their original team at all.
REST… between seasons
Playing baseball year-round is the worst thing young players can do. Even non-pitchers need time to rest their shoulders and elbows. Orthopedists cite the lack of an off-season as the culprit for many rotator cuffs and ligament injuries, especially in pitchers.
The recommended offseason is four months per year. Hall of Famer Tom Glavine pitched for over 20 seasons without missing a single game due to injury. He credits this to never making a throwing motion between seasons.
Don’t rest too much!
When we speak about rest, we are considering the throwing joints. But it is important to keep in good overall shape, increase flexibility, and strengthen some other muscles.
Maximizing the twisting ability of your torso, the push of the strength of your hips and legs, and the load absorption in your knees and thighs diminishes the stress on your throwing shoulder and elbow.
Moderate weights and medicine ball training are helpful tools. Simple rotational exercises, squats, thrusts, pull-ups, and push-ups are good enough if you do not have gym equipment handy.
Stop showing off!
Pitchers throw a little harder when they know someone is measuring their speed. That little extra stretch or acceleration can end careers.
Youth coaches should never own a radar gun. Baseball scouts will bring their own, but a good scout knows their pitching coaches will improve velocity in any pitcher who has good form and delivery. That is the important thing.
Showcase events are linked to increased injuries. They force players out of their safe routine. They might be scheduled too soon after a game or late enough after a season that the player is not properly prepared. That won’t stop someone with a dream from pushing himself past his normal limits. Don’t go or make sure you spend the time to prepare properly.
Listen to your body (or your player)
Pain means it is time to stop throwing. If any player ever tells a coach their arm is hurting, and that coach asks if the player can stay on the field a while, find another team to play for.
The same goes for arm fatigue. Arm fatigue is the cardinal sign of an elbow injury. If your arm is feeling weak during or before a game, rest it completely and go see an orthopedist when you can.
Baseball history is filled with promising young players whose careers ended too early because they tried to pitch through pain or fatigue. Don’t do it and don’t let anyone else tell you to do it.
Baseball is one of the most endearing and enjoyable games in the world. Anyone can play it unless they have a serious injury. Take care of yourself so you can enjoy the game for many, many years to come.