As many of you have seen, I posted a video on the Softball Tutor Facebook Page this week (january 13, 2016) which created a lot of discussion. It was awesome! One of the most discussed posts on the page in fact. The video of potential pitching overuse injuries was of a pitcher from 2010 who was 6 years old at the time. A phenomenal pitcher who appeared to be enjoying the process. The discussion that I started however was about the potential for that pitcher to be used much more than her 6 year old physical, psychological and emotional abilities could withstand. She had the potential to eventually suffer from softball pitching overuse injuries. Through investigation, I am happy though to report that she is now 12 and still enjoying the game very much. Yay!
The reason for my concern, was that I have seen so many times, a talented pitcher becomes the force behind a team that without her, would likely fail on the scoreboard. There is more to it than that though. This kind of pressure on a young athlete at any age can be extremely stressful. In the end, it can have not only a physiological effect but it can even break her confidence and ultimately her enjoyment of this awesome game.
Beginning of Pitching Overuse Injuries
The pressure to be successful and to be on her game every time she steps on the field is difficult even for an adult to deal with. If a pitcher with these expectations does not have experience with mental training strategies, the potential downward spiral can eventually end her career. Next time you are at the field and watching a game, watch the pitcher if she is struggling. You might notice her technique begin to diminish as her confidence decrease. This puts additional stress on the body due to the inefficient mechanics as her competency is being questioned. So what do we do with this?
Here is what I would do:
Allow For Failure
As a young athlete, regardless of the sport, competition level, or age, a pitcher needs to be allowed to fail. There are many reasons for this “tool”. How else will she learn to regroup and move on to the next execution after an error. If she is encouraged to be perfect all of the time, it will be when she does fail that she will feel even more like a failure than if she was not trying to be perfect. Then what. Her confidence begins to dwindle as she has no chance of attaining the goal of perfection. That is no fun for anyone not to mention a 6 or even 14 year old athlete.
In my opinion, failure is how we improve skills. I like to call errors learning opportunities. By performing less than perfect, especially at the younger ages, athletes should be encouraged to look internally at their skills, and learn how to improve through analysis and engaging with coaches and instructors. By beginning the self directed actions of working towards improvement through a building process, this pitcher will be in the top of her league because she got herself there and knows exactly how to remain there. If coaches and managers are constantly telling her how to improve without allowing her to be involved, she will not be able to maximize her improvements because she is not a part of the process.
Learning the mental aspect of pitching is also critical for success as an elite softball player for any position. By learning mental training skills and strategies, pitchers can use them any time during competition and during training. They can learn how to calm themselves, and to remain in the moment during games rather than with the last pitch. Relaxation, cue words and goal setting are great tools that can help pitchers at any age to stay focused on the task at hand.
Being aware of what athletes are physically capable of as they move through the developmental stages, is very important. According to SportsInjuries.org “Every year 3.5 million children under the age of 14 are treated for sports injuries, and among middle school and high school athletes half of them are overuse injuries.” We as coaches and administrators need to be aware of the causes of pitching overuse injuries, and how we can prevent them rather than how our team, program or ego can benefit from their performances.
I would use the guidelines set out by the medical profession while developing practices and scheduling games. More is not better and never will be. Rest and recovery of the body and mind will far outperform the exhausted athlete and team. I know from experience as I refused to have my teams in tournaments every weekend. I do not have to tell you who had more energy when it counted.
Knowing that I had a full season of games, I would also plan a schedule for pitchers in such a way that they can adequately recover in between sessions. A young pitcher will need a longer recovery time than a seasoned veteran would. Someone as young as 6 to 11 should at least have 24-48 hours between sessions. The reason I refer to sessions rather than games and practices, is because I have not met a successful pitcher who puts in half efforts during training.
At the end of the day, to be cautious is a better start rather than going full speed ahead until a pitcher experiences discomfort. Our job as coaches number one is to do no harm. To turn a talented pitcher into a workhorse because she will get better and help the team is not a winning strategy in the end. It is true that she could have a good support network that will help her to be successful in spite of it. There are exceptions of course. I have met pitchers who were made into workhorses and then went on to enjoy great careers. I have more often though seen the pitchers who were used as much as possible and then quit the game before 16.
In the End
Our goal is to develop people first. The do no harm principle applies to all aspects of our coaching and by utilizing good planning methods our goal can be accomplished. The end result should be a softball player who begins early and plays into their senior years because they love the game that much.