In contrast to baseball, the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) has no regulations in place to monitor pitches thrown per game, innings played, rest between appearances, or number of required pitchers per team. Much of this is due to the belief that, the underhand throwing motion in fast-pitch softball places less stress on the should, making pitching injuries less common. With softball season just around the corner, I would like to outline several reasons why this ideology is flawed, why it may be putting young female athletes at a higher risk of injury, and some ways to address the issues.
Year-round play diminishes off-season training
I’ll preface this by noting there is not enough prehab, rehab, or strength conditioning in nearly any youth sports. With the prevalence of single sport specialization, or as we at Northwest Fitness refer to it “Athletic Isolation” more athletes are foregoing off-season training, rest, and preparation, in favor of competing year-round in a single sport. The fall-out from these decisions is often not brought to reality until it is too late.
Though their practiced skill at a given sport may improve, the musculature and supporting structures are not being developed. As athletes increase in efficiency of movement, little is done to address poor rotator cuff strength, scapular control, or a lack of both muscular and kinesthetic awareness. The result is lever arms that can produce more force than the structure can control. In short, you’re putting a jet engine in a Miata, which sounds cool until you hit a bump in the road at full speed, and it ends in catastrophic failure … or in this case Tommy John Surgery and Rotator Cuff Tears. Compounding these issues, it’s not until the collegiate level that most of these athletes are exposed to a formal and structured strength program.
The solution is simple – evaluate and emulate what they are doing at the collegiate and professional levels. So, what are they doing at the highest levels? Playing in season, and utilizing the off-season to heal, rehab, and get stronger for the next season. Though they most “workout” all year, there is not a single athlete in any professional sport that plays year-round. Building in specific time to recover will reduce non-specific inflammation, especially in youth athletes who have bones that have not fully hardened. The off-season exists for recovery and the development of athletic balance. It’s January, Bryce Harper isn’t trying to get a game in, he’s doing deadlifts at the Philippi Sports Institute in Las Vegas. Be like Bryce – do deadlifts and get paid.
Torque forces in fast-pitch are significant at the shoulder and elbow.
The conventional belief in fast-pitch softball has been that the underhand throwing motion places minimal stress on the shoulder and pitching-related injuries are therefore rare. While it is true the forces and torques experienced at the shoulder for females do not match the forces produced with overhand pitching in males this disregards several important additional factors, most notably the difference in size.
As a point of fact, male athletes are substantially larger than female athletes. This additional size (height x weight) allow for a greater distribution of torque and force as it relates to the shoulder. The conclusion we can logically come to as coaches, athletes, and parents, is though female athletes may not be experiencing the same actual torque, the relative torque is the same if not significantly higher.
A study by the Werner group published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy – illustrated these factors saying “A common complaint of softball pitchers is anterior shoulder discomfort near the origin of the long head of the biceps tendon. The diagnosis of bicipital tendinitis is often made with little consideration to the possibility of subscapularis or pectoralis strain, which may occur as increased shoulder extension is followed by large forces and torques produced during the delivery motion.”
As this information is considered, it should also by noted that your untrained youth athletes, no matter their level of “skill”, are not highly trained, biomechanically efficient, or skeletally mature. The effects of these torque forces have greater potential to cause damage. A separate article, also by the Werner group demonstrated this, showing stress is almost 20% lower in Olympic softball pitchers, even though their velocity was on average 5mph higher. This reduction in stress is greatly attributed to the greater levels of strength and kinesthetic efficiency found in skeletally mature athletes.
If coaches aren’t counting pitches, Athletes and Parents MUST.
In a conversation with one of our favorite athletes to work with, who came to us through a pitching related shoulder injury, we talked briefly about the volume of pitching that she was experiencing. Together we estimated that she threw an average of over 50 pitches per game, over 24 games. This led into the travel ball season where she went on to throw another 24 or so games, each with around 50 pitches. The rest time between games will vary, but in total she threw nearly the same about of pitches as an MLB pitcher throws over an 8-month season. If you were ever curious about what Justin Verlander has in common with a 16 year old girl … Well, they both threw about the same amount of pitches last year, the 16 year old girl just did it in 5 months instead of 8.
Over the last several years injuries to women softball pitchers have become so prevalent that Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon and authority on the topic of throwing injuries, had this to say in his 2013 writing of Any Given Monday: “There is a common belief that the throwing underhand is a natural way to keep a player safe from injury, but this is definitely not true. The repeated movement and velocity of pitches thrown, even in the windmill style, are now even tearing the ‘Tommy John ligament,’ resulting in a UCL injury. Pitching limits matter in softball as much as they do in baseball.”
All sports carry an inherent risk. As an athlete, parent, or coach this is a factor that must be considered no matter the activity. What is important is how we manage that risk, and that we take steps to mitigate those risks when we have the opportunity. How can we best do this?
Get in a weight training program. Strength and flexibility are an athletes best defense against injury.
Keep Pitch Counts. No youth athletes should be throwing over 100 game speed pitches in a week.
Make sure that athletes are communicating their aches and pains so that they can be addressed before the damage starts.
Put the softball down for a couple of months each year and focus on rehab, recovery, and pre-season injury prevention.
The mission of Northwest Speed School is to direct both corporate and private donations to bring athletic expertise to native, low income, and rural populations throughout the northwestern United States. For feedback on this article or information on how you can involve your young athletes in any of our programs please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find information for our summer speed academy at www.speednw.com/speed-academy