Friday, February 25, 2011

How Much Baseball Is Too Much?

By Perry Cunningham

was recently asked this question by a concerned parent who was worried that their son's love the game could eventually consume him. The main fear was obviously long-term health. But there were others - becoming burned out and not experiencing and developing at other sports were also discussed.

How much is too much?

I'm all for physical activity. I think that kids should be kids and spend as much time playing outdoors as possible. I urge caution in playing too much, but raise a red flag when it comes to pitching.

Before getting into specifics, see if you can answer this question.

Every August, the baseball community focuses on Williamsport for the Little League World Series (I was there for the first time this past summer and if you have never attended, do whatever you can to experience it). There is always the kid who throws hard, has a nasty curveball and slider and dominates every team he pitches against.

How many of those kids are pitching in the Major League Baseball? I understand that this is somewhat of a stretch to compare what a kid does at 12 to where he is in life at 27, but doesn't it make you wonder?

Talent is talent. In hockey and basketball, it is not out of the question for scouts and college coaches to be buzzing around kids when they are in middle school. Yet in baseball, it seems that many of these same players with 75 MPH fastballs and unhittable curveballs never make it to the top of their profession.

If you are fortunate to live in a warm part of the world, where baseball can be played year-round, I'm jealous. But does that make it right for a 12-year old to play baseball for 12 months?

My advice was simple. Play baseball all you want. Hit and play the field 12 months out of the year IF that is what your child wants. I understand that as a parent, you have an obligation to tell your child no if the action is something you deem to be unhealthy or unnecessary.

But I also think that kids can be doing a lot worse. Baseball - or any organized activity - can provide structure, social skills and a sense of belonging. You know your kids better than anyone. Are they genuinely enthusiastic about going to practice and games? Do they enjoy camps, lessons and DVDs?
Or do they agree to play because they don't want to disappoint you or feel that they will let you down? Are you pushing your child to play and be the best player because that is what you want? (You probably weren't anticipating such deep questions when you began.)

Let's get back to pitching. I do not endorse pitching competitively for 12 months out of the year. If professional pitchers (who are also fully grown, physically developed adults) know the importance of taking time off and resting your arm, shouldn't the same principle apply to children and teens?

My recommendation is that everyone, regardless of age, should take a total of three months off in a calendar year, preferably consecutively.

When I have this conversation, inevitably two more questions come up - won't my child lose his arm strength and what will happen to the mechanics he worked so hard to develop?

Your body needs time off. Muscles, tendons and ligaments that are subject to overuse become fatigued. The chances of injury increase. What sounds better - taking three months off to rest or taking six months off because of a sprained ligament? The rest is needed and will lead to a sense of rejuvenation.

The answer to question number two is that you do not need to throw to practice pitching mechanics. In fact, you are probably better off not to throw because you can practice longer and more often. Find a big mirror and, without a ball, concentrate on developing solid pitching mechanics.

I grew up in Ohio, not exactly known for its baseball weather for half the year. If I lived in another part of the country, my guess is that I would have played baseball year round. But I also think that there is something to be said for not having the opportunity.

Baseball was all I thought about between October and March. Not being able to play undoubtedly made me appreciate the game when the weather allowed. I didn't grow tired of the game, become burned out or become complacent in my development.

In the end, my recommendation is from my experience. As a professional pitcher, I took off from October through December and never had any serious arm problems. But you know your children better than anyone. You can read their body language and know when they are truly having fun. I'm confident you will make the best decision for them.

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