The business of youth baseball doesn’t have to harm our children

Baseball null How many parents do you know believe they have the next Mike Trout or Max Scherzer on their hands? And how many of their children will get injured because they and the youth coaches fail to follow what should be basic principles of health management as the kids push the envelope to attain their dreams?Less than one percent of high school baseball players are drafted to play professionally. The percentage increases for college baseball players to just over 10 percent. Frankly, those odds are terrible and that’s just to be drafted and play in the minors, not reach the big leagues. However, the business of youth baseball fills young players with grandiose dreams and tugs at the hearts of parents longing for their children to succeed at America’s pastime. America’s other pastime — making money — tends to cloud the reality that kids are getting hurt because training regimens fail to focus on the whole body and the time spent in competition typically extends well beyond necessity and what a young athlete’s body can handle.“The youth sports industry in the United States is set out to develop elite youth [athletes], and they are succeeding,” said Dr. Tommy John, author of Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide. “We have elite youth [athletes], but we are breaking rules of development and we (end up with) elite youth athletes with dysfunctional bodies.” Dr. John, who is the son of former pitcher Tommy John, spoke at length with Sporting News about his endeavor to aid young athletes as they navigate the $15 billion youth sports industry and the pressure it tends to place on young athletes. The youth sports machine has created the perception among youth and their parents that if the child is not focused and competing 100 percent of the year in their sport that they will be left by the wayside by others that go full bore 365 days a year.As such, Dr. John hopes to be a resource to help youth athletes and their parents understand how to survive the rigors of the youth sports industry. Dr. John aims to assist players, parents and coaches be proactive in preventing injuries versus sticking with the status quo of reactionary measures.Dr. John understands that the youth sports industry caters to those trying to develop elite athletes. He also wholeheartedly believes that successful youth athletes can rise above the rest using his methodology of maintaining a healthy mind and body.“In the course of time the best will get to the highest level and now you’ve got a total, different athlete and that’s what we’re looking for,” Dr. John said. “Not just a baseball player.”Unfortunately, parents are at a crossroads; wanting their children to succeed and potentially form careers or at least carve out scholarship opportunities through sports, but at the same time they want their kids to be healthy. Dr. John’s program, works to simplify the ability for parents to succeed in both aspects and most importantly be true to themselves.“Parents are going to have to look themselves in the mirror and self-analyze,” Dr. John said.In his book, Dr. John speaks of a performance pyramid that he believes will enable youth athletes to not only succeed but stay healthy in doing so. The pyramid is built on functional movement as the stable base, holding up functional performance (adding resistance to functional movement) and then functional skill (sport-specific movements such as throwing a pitch).Our society tends to focus on the sport-specific movement too often, which in baseball often centers on a pitcher’s arm. While Dr. John rightly suggests we cannot limit our focus to that alone, there is a need for programs to work to aid young pitchers and that’s where USA Baseball’s Pitch Smart program specializes.Sporting News spoke with Rick Riccobono, USA Baseball’s Chief Development Director

, about the organization’s impact on the youth baseball industry, namely on how they are working with leagues around the country to help prevent injury to youth players. Pitch smart is the main vehicle for USA Baseball’s efforts.“Pitch Smart is a program that is meant to serve as a series of guidelines and resources for the general public to access and get better informed about how to navigate their journey through amateur baseball, said Riccobono.” “It is designed to keep kids healthy and to limit overuse, provide best practices and hopefully allow for better informed coaches and parents.”It is important to note that USA Baseball does not serve as the rule maker for youth baseball. That process remains in the hands of the individual leagues, which is why there are still some problems brewing in the industry. Riccobono professed that USA Baseball’s goal with Pitch Smart is to encourage its guidelines be adopted as rules.USA Baseball has been successful in marketing their message, with Riccobono estimating “millions” of kids are following the Pitch Smart guidelines. USA Baseball’s reach goes beyond the travel leagues and tournament play around the country as they also work with the National High School Federation to drive best practices to the state associations.USA Baseball is not satisfied with Pitch Smart’s early success.“The [program] is ever-evolving. I don’t think this is the type of program where we feel like it’s done and we don’t need to worry about that anymore,” Riccobono said.Part of the evolution for Dr. John centers on ways to shift from baseball competition to the downtime in the natural season, yet remain immersed in the game. Dr. John claims that this specialization — defined as “competing” in one sport for more than eight months in a calendar year — is the No. 1 injury risk factor for youths.Dr. John suggested several ways around full year competition while remaining intently focused on the game including: general movement training, watching videos, reading books on the sport and the success of other athletes, visiting Cooperstown and other non-competitive actions. While Dr. John stressed that athletes can be singular sport driven, they should not compete straight through a calendar year.Further, during the season, Dr. John recommends that young athletes, their families and their coaches need to refocus on general movement preparedness more often than concentrating on skill training. In the United States, children aged 10-11 practice skills 90 percent of the time, while the suggested amount of skill aptitude training should be 10 percent for that age group. Starting early with skillset based training is another factor to poor health down the line.Riccobono agrees with Dr. John’s assertion that remaining in complete competition mode for baseball is unnecessary and USA Baseball has specific guidelines on specialization in baseball.“We’ve taken a pretty strong position on this issue. I think it is fairly well documented that we support multi-sport play,” Riccobono said. “We think [it has] a lot of merit to athletes. First of all, we want our [baseball] players to be athletes. That is one thing that does have the ability to get lost in translation in this age of professionalism [of youth sports].”The early developmental years are important to building the foundation for a successful pursuit in professional sports. When asked how Major League Baseball can help, Dr. John believes it has to enter into the fray at the onset stages of competition instead of working on the problem as kids have turned to adults with pitching programs designed around one facet and not overall body health.“It’s like putting a single finger in the dam, but the dam is overflowing at the top,” Dr. John said. “In order to change the face of Major League Baseball, they have to go into the youth level and totally revamp that whole system and then wait for that generation to get to the big leagues — eight to 10 years [from now] — and that’s when we will see a change.”Dr. John and Riccobono may come at the issues regarding health and well-being in youth baseball players from different angles, but they want the same thing — physically and mentally strong youth athletes that do not fall under the weight of the pressures surrounding the youth sports industry. If young baseball players and their parents subscribe to Dr. John’s methodology and utilize USA Baseball’s multi-platform resources, we’ll eventually have elite and healthy athletic adult ballplayers.