Today’s sport scheme is governed by making athletes bigger, stronger, and faster. In the last decade, the importance of weight training and player development has taken over the country. Due to the focus on the physical aspect of player development to avoid sport injuries, professionals tend to neglect the importance not only of the psychological aspect but also the social aspect of sport injuries. With the aid of advanced medical knowledge and technology, most injured athletes have the potential for full recovery to their pre-injury or higher level of fitness and performance. However, numerous athletes fail to recover back to their pre-injury level of play and often this failure is attributable to psychological factors (Clement, Granquist and Arvinen-Barrow, 2013) Any physical movement starts at the brain and any disturbances to the information sent to the muscles will affect the outcome of the action to perform. These disturbances could be social, psychological, biological, and even socio-demographical. The stress and injury model by Andersen and Williams (1988) and the integrated model of psychological response to the sport injury proposed by Wiese-Bjornstal (1998) explain how these factors can directly affect performance and the likelihood of injuries.
Application My goal for this post is to apply these principles to the current youth baseball model; to explain the rising of injuries due to multiple factors. It is noticeable that stress increases as individuals mature, since responsibilities increase as they go through different phases of personal development. For example, a 6th grader will not have the same amount of responsibilities as a senior in high school. In the same context a senior in high school will not have the same amount of responsibilities as college athlete. Each individual has what is called a stress bucket, which allows them to manage different situations and understand how much they can handle without altering homeostasis.
The human brain interprets any difficulty as stress. There is not a filter. For example, missing breakfast or skipping an activity out of your morning routine can be considered stressful. Moreover, certain stressors can act as a multiplier to successive situations. For example, being hungry while being stuck in traffic can multiply the effect of the latter stressor. The body’s answer to restore homeostasis when the bucket overflows is to shut down via sickness, injury, or by creating a lethargic state. How does this relate to the current model of youth sports? In the last decade, the amount of free play has almost gone extinct and professionalism in youth sports is reaching the youngest levels. Kids are asked to play competitively year-round with minimal time allocated to practice or preparation. Coaches are demanding that players behave like professionals at a young age, sometimes even being asked to play through pain and discomfort. An activity that is supposed to be a stress releaser, and a way for kids to be kids, is becoming a stressful situation where they are being tested, judged, and asked to perform at their peak. In addition, parents’ lack of social support and implementation of private lessons by coaches that mainly criticize their child’s ability to perform continue to add stress to these individuals with small stress buckets.
Reflecting on the last paragraph, we can now take into question the format of current youth baseball tournaments. Players may play up to 6 games in a weekend with a roster of roughly 12 players. Often, these tournaments start as early as 7 am and could end around 8 PM. I have witnessed myself how these children and teenagers were performing in their last game of the day. They are not enjoying or engaging in the game.
Using the stress model, there are psychological and attentional changes that will increase the likelihood of injuries. These changes are highly observable in the last game of any tournament as players are not psychologically attuned with the game, while the stress is still present. To add to this, poor nutrition and hydration are also predominant in these tournaments, as players may have to report back to the field after a short break, not providing enough time to fuel their bodies to perform. As I stated before, biological stresses tend to act as multipliers to successive stressors. This is a large reason why sleep is considered one of the most important factors when it comes to improved performance and reducing the risk of injuries.
CHANGES TO THE USA MODEL FOR YOUTH SPORTS Having grown up in Venezuela and seeing first-hand what player development is like there, in comparison to the United States, along with having conversations with sports medicine professionals from Japan regarding their model for youth baseball, I have made several observations:
Youth Latin American players play baseball year-round with high emphasis on skill acquisition and practices over competitive situations. When players get drafted or obtain a scholarship to play in United States, competitive situations increase. The majority of them are introduced to weight training, in addition to moving to an unknown environment. In the case of college athletics, educational and job responsibilities are additional stressors that player may have to deal with.
The amount of injuries reported in Latin American youth sports are lower compared to US and Japan. However, the likelihood increases as they become professionals or college athletes. Although there are multiple factors to take in consideration, I believe Latin Americans’ ability to handle strenuous physical activities is lower compared to their American counterparts due to being introduced to strength training later in their lives. However, I believe Latin American players develop resilience that may act as a buffer against stress due to limited access to sports medicine professionals. They do not have direct access to athletic trainers and physical therapy compared to the U.S.
Rosters for youth sports teams in Latin American are composed of 15-18 players, where everyone has the ability to pitch. Pitch limits are set based on age and having a set starter is prohibited (The same starter cannot start two games in a row and games are separated by a full week, a double-header is rarely played)
Japanese players play baseball year-round as well and do not follow pitch limit guidelines; their pitchers can pitch in multiple games that occur in the same day. The amount of reported injuries is similar to the U.S. However, the number of throws performed by Japanese players is far greater than their U.S. counterparts. Japanese discipline and work ethic are well-known throughout the world. They put high emphasis in throwing mechanics and are big advocates of long-distance running. Recently they have started to implement strength training and are looking to state pitch limits regulations
United States travel ball business will not go away anytime soon, as parents and players consider this a main way for exposure to college and draft opportunities for their child. The power of social media has grown in the last couple of years allowing players to get these opportunities without attending showcases or being part of a travel ball team. Platforms such as Flatground Pitching, Flatground Hitting and Off Speed Softball are breaking through this mindset and getting exposure to players all around the world. However, there are a few things that we as coaches and parents can be do to improve the current model:
Increase the number of players on a roster: most parents want their child to play every game and spend little time on the bench. However, having more players will allow kids to rest physically and mentally between games, observe and learn the game, and decrease the amount of throws in a game or tournament.
Teach and develop pitchers. The more pitchers a youth team can have, the more probable it is a coach can rest arms and following pitch count guidelines. As coaches we must teach youth players to be versatile and be able to play in every position, similar to how Latin American countries develop their players. This will benefit player development by developing more athleticism.
Prepare for the strains of a long tournament or season: make sure to develop a plan to provide meals and hydration to your players; taking care of the biological stressors will affect how they feel and perceive stress.
Emphasize practices over games. Players that feel prepared to play will handle stressful situations differently compared to individuals that are always asked to perform in a chaotic environment without preparation.
Inside-Out Coaches: observe and engage in discussions with your kid’s coaches, are they adding more to that athlete’s stress bucket or are they acting as a buffer by inspiring confidence and providing tools to handle stress on the field? Are they making an impact on your child’s love for the game, character, and sportsmanship? Is he creating an over professional, competitive environment where failure is punished with physical activity or psychological abuse?
Understanding the psychological stress of early exposure to professionalism and critiquing the current youth baseball model for development, will not only help decrease the likelihood of injuries but also decrease the likelihood of burnout and dropout. Children want to be part of an environment where they can be themselves and interact with each other. Our goal as coaches should be to develop a rich environment for youth to train as well as learn the game while incorporating competitive or challenging environment to express those skills.
This post was written by Francisco Rivas, CSCS, USAW, PN1. Francisco is one of our providers based out of Quincy, IL.
References Andersen, M.B. and Williams, J.M. (1988) A model of stress and athletic injury: Prediction and prevention. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10,294-306 Clement, D., Granquist, M. and Arvinen-Barrow, M. (2013) Psychosocial aspects of athletic injuries as perceived by athletic trainers. Journal of Athletic Training. Wiese-Bjornstal, D.M., Smith, A.M., Shaffer, S.M. and Morrey, M.A. (1998) An integrated model of response to sport injury: Psychological and sociological dynamics. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10, 46-69