Have We Passed the Tipping Point?

It was the first week in November and I had just spent a very intense hour helping a 12-year-old pitcher overcome some issues, designing a plan for her development during the coming year.  She surprised me by saying, “I will start on this as soon as our travel ball season is finished”.  I stood there in disbelief.  She still had tournaments throughout November and, worse yet, they were small local contests.

We are doing a disservice to these kids by playing year-round.  Because our organization is totally focused on development, we strongly suggest a couple of rules that enable kids to reach their potential.  Good pitchers should have at least 6 consecutive weeks a year where they do not touch a ball.  Every medical expert and every strength training expert I have consulted agrees with this, and most suggest 8 weeks.  Wait…there is more.

The second rule is that every pitcher needs at least six weeks a year with no competition so she can focus purely on development.  She should have specific objectives like learning new pitches, maximizing speed, or becoming deadly accurate.  If you play through November, it’s going to be really tough for her to have 6 weeks of “down time” and then find 6 weeks to work on her skills.  Sadly, I feel that softball has already passed that tipping point.

If this still does not make sense to you, let me give you a few more good reasons why playing too much, and playing year-round, is harmful.  Injuries are hitting pitchers at an alarming rate.  If a kid’s form is not absolutely perfect, little things that did not bother pitchers few years ago are stacking up to cause major surgery today.  With the realities of year-round softball, she keeps pushing it, never has time to work on the imbalances that cause a lot of the issues, and she begins trying to compensate for the weakness and pain by using wrong parts of the body to handle the load.   ERA soon takes a back seat to MRI.

Sadly, we see some kids who were taught very dangerous things.  They are in big trouble if they play a lot.  Things that did not hurt early in the season become serious with enough reps.  When they call, I tell them we will consider working with them, but they have to be willing to accept some ground rules regarding limits on innings in a weekend and the length of their season, especially while we are fixing things.   One dad recently asked me to work with his daughter, explaining that she is so good that her team sometimes pitches her 6 or 7 times a weekend.  If he thinks that is a good thing, we would not be a good fit.

Recovery time.  Why do we believe that sprinters, weight-lifters, and baseball pitchers need recovery time, but one of the most explosive positions in sports, softball pitching, needs none?  We tell her to throw a hundred pitches a day for 12 months a year.  Who decided that was a good idea?

Pitching more does not necessarily make you better.  It can lead to fatigue, which causes wear and tear that breaks down the form.  Soon she hits a plateau.  When that happens, the natural tendency is to push harder, trying to gain speed by forcing her way through inefficient movements, which sets her up for even more problems.

Exposure:  The more a kid is out there, the greater the risk of crazy things happening.  This past year I have been stunned at the number of things like broken fingers from line drives, or from getting hit while batting.  We see broken bones in the foot from fouling a ball while hitting.  Just the sheer number of games means more sprained ankles while playing defense or running bases, knee injuries, collisions with other players, and all of these things cause setbacks or compensation in form that are tough to overcome.

Nutrition.  One of the exciting developments in recent years has been the discovery of ways nutrition can, literally, change lives.  It can balance hormones, prevent injury, give you energy, and give you the endurance you need.  But, it takes planning and time.  When a kid spends 11 months a year running from school to practice to games, shoving down concession stand hotdogs and skipping meals, that is a short path to failure.

Grades.  If you want to play in college, you gotta have good grades.  They hear it over and over, but where is the support?  As soon as school is dismissed she has to practice pitching, run to team practice, do a couple of after-school activities, leave on Friday for a three-day tournament.  Oh, in her spare time, tell her to make good grades!  A few kids can do it, but it is a gigantic stress builder for many.

Burnout.   Every year, more great softball players walk away from the game.  Your body and mind can only focus for so long.  You begin to resent the game that used to be fun.  Recruiting only adds to the pressure. Soon you feel the urge to escape from the activity that used to be your escape.

Money.  Frankly, I don’t understand how these parents afford it.  The college fund turns into the travel ball fund.  It is seen as an investment.  Pity the kid who feels that pressure.

Hormones.  Some studies indicate that there are a couple of days a month when most ACL tears, and other serious injuries, happen to females.  These are days when she is better served to sleep late and do little else.  You have to allow her that down time.  This is often impossible with the pressures of travel ball today.

Identity.  This could be the most important of all and it is most often overlooked.  If you “are” what you do…….”who are you” when you are no longer “doing”?  If a kid eats, breathes, and lives softball, what if she gets hurt, suffers burnout, or what if something happens to a parent’s health or finances so that it becomes impossible for her to continue playing at high levels?  Far too many kids tie their entire identity to the game.  We should not even need to explain the risks in that.

I love the game.  Nobody has put as many kids into D1 as we have.  We get excited for our kids, love to see them pitch in games, and there is just something special about the atmosphere when I see them pitch in college.  But, lately I have seen changes that worry me.  And, it only seems to accelerate.  Far too many people are letting others drive.  It may be a good time for parents to step back, take a deep breath, and decide what is right for their daughters on the long term.