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Early specialization — the practice of playing a single sport for most of the year and foregoing the opportunity to play other sports — is an increasingly popular strategy in the United States. In my experience, this is especially true for baseball, gymnastics, hockey, and soccer. For parents of baseball players, the first question on the road to early specialization is often, “should my son play fall ball?” I offer the following thoughts to help answer this difficult question.
Little League Baseball
Before focusing on Little League baseball in particular, it is helpful to revisit the goals of youth sports in general according to Hedstrom and Gould:1
Learning and developing physical skills Appreciating the value of fitness Building a sense of belonging among one’s peers Acquiring sport skill for leisure Stimulating physical and emotional growth Cultivating a sense of self-worth Developing social competence Building morals and personal integrity Learning to cope with failure**** Added by Josh
Little Leaguers experience morphing of the humeral joint (the bone that runs from the shoulder to elbow) as a result of the throwing motion. This adaptation becomes more significant as a player matures physically and begins to throw harder and more often. These changes in the arm lead to more external rotation of the shoulder, which in turn allows a player to throw harder as he gets older.2
A follow-up study questioned pitchers ten years after pitching in Little League. The researchers questioned the former Little Leaguers about injury, which was defined as elbow surgery, shoulder surgery, or retirement due to throwing injury. Pitchers who pitched 100 innings or more were 350% more likely to be “injured” than their counterparts who threw fewer innings in a years time. I would submit that all of these “injuries” were traumatic, as they either ended or directly affected the careers of the players in question.3
For simplicity’s sake, I will exclude the throwing variables caused by playing catcher, playing on multiple teams, throwing with friends, and participating in practices, scrimmages, and warm-ups from the following example. This example also assumes that a pitcher will throw six innings every three games, as this is the “normal” workload for a Little League pitcher.
Westport Little League:
Spring Regular Season: 20 games or 40 innings pitched
Summer District Play: 13 games or 26 innings pitched
Summer Regional Play: 4 games or 8 innings pitched
Little League World Series: 6 games or 12 innings pitched
Total: 43 games or 86 innings pitched
Fall Baseball: 8 games or 24 innings (assuming a pitcher will throw 3 inn. a week)
Total: 51 games or 110 innings
To me, these numbers make clear that a Little Leaguer who pitches approximately six innings per week, plays competitively all summer and continues to play fall baseball will reach that 100 inning number and have a markedly higher risk for serious injury or ending their career.
A study by Dr. James Andrews and his staff surveyed two groups of pitchers with an average age of 18. One group had no history of elbow or shoulder pain lasting longer than two weeks; the second group consisted of pitchers who had either shoulder or elbow surgery due to overuse from pitching. The pain-free pitchers averaged 5 ½ months of competitive baseball per year, while the group that required surgery averaged eight. The results of the study reveal that pitchers who pitch competitively eight months per year are 500% more likely to require shoulder or elbow surgery.
High school baseball pitchers in the northeast may have a slight advantage over their southern counterparts, as the seasons in the northeast are shorter (assuming the pitcher does not have access to a dome in the winter). Northeast baseball is normally played competitively for seven months — from April to August with fall ball in September and October — while southern baseball has virtually no offseason. Thus, the abbreviated season in the northeast protects pitchers from overexertion, while the clement weather in the south, though seemingly a blessing, exposes pitchers to a greater risk of injury.
But I need to play more baseball to get better!
Before worrying about a child’s improvement in a given sport, the child’s health and well-being must be considered. Especially in youth sports, parents and coaches have an obligation to monitor their athletes’ physical and mental health. Indeed, experts have observed that “early specialization is associated with a range of negative consequences affecting physical, psychological, and social development.”4 In addition to keeping athletes healthy, the goal of youth athletics should be to allow each player to fulfill his potential and play as long as he desires.
Even so, it is absolutely true that practice is necessary to progress and become elite in a sport. Scott Kaufman speaks on this subject in his book The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent Or Practice.5
The central predication of the “mature age specialization” pathway is based on transfer of learning or characteristics acquired in one sport to another. Therefore, the ability of a mature adult to transfer into a sport is dependent on whether the athlete has previously engaged in activities that are highly relevant within the sport he or she is transferring into.
Kaufman also notes that children who play multiple sports are better “learners” because they can utilize their prefrontal cortex. Experience in a variety of sports gives an athlete a larger “pool” of skills to draw on when attempting a new sport. One of my favorite examples of this is a former athlete of mine, Dave Boisture. Dave was an all-state quarterback who also played baseball and basketball in high school and eventually played outfield in college. Dave’s “pool” of athleticism was large because he was a stellar multi-sport athlete who learned to run, throw, jump, dodge opponents, adapt to field conditions, and play well under pressure. The following video shows Dave making an incredibly athletic catch while running up an inclined outfield on the in the high-stakes environment an NCAA Regional Tournament game.
Dave’s holistic approach to baseball and sports in general was clear during our initial fall testing last year. During testing, each player receives a sheet to fill out which includes position. Dave wrote “athlete” instead of “outfield,” the expected response. Dave’s understanding of himself as an athlete, rather than merely a baseball player, allows him to employ the full array of athletic skills that he has learned over the years. This versatility in turn makes Dave indispensable to his team.
Besides the fact that the research shows a direct correlation with extra months of competitive baseball and a significantly higher surgery/drop out rate, I am not a fan of fall baseball in its current format. Normal seasons have players practicing and playing 4-6 times per week, while fall ball often has zero or one practice per week with two to four games on the weekend. Most kids don’t throw or prepare themselves for the games during the week, and take the mound as they would during their summer seasons. In my opinion, this lack of consistent practice and preparation during the fall season is dangerous regardless of the number of innings the pitcher has thrown in the spring and summer months.
I also object to the exploitative nature of many fall leagues. Before I receive all sorts of hate mail, please understand that I am speaking in generalizations and that I appreciate that many programs “get it.” However, I know for a fact that many leagues feel that fall ball is necessary to raise more revenue and make ends meet. I also know that many programs exploit this opportunity to tell players and parents that a kid must play fall ball to keep up with their peers and be considered for an organization’s spring or summer programs. Such programs do a disservice to their players not only ethically but also athletically, as this approach limits players’ athletic growth and increases their risk of career-ending injury.
The research presented in this post deals primarily with pitchers, but I recommend limiting all baseball players to competitive spring and summer seasons only. Playing other sports and practicing baseball skills on the side will allow an athlete to progress as much as early specialization, but it involves a much smaller risk of overuse.
Anecdotally, there is no question to what the correct answer is. Every professional baseball player I have ever worked with was a multi-sport stud in high school. In the rehab setting, I have seen an increasing number of injuries that correlate well to the research and are directly linked to fall baseball.