Athleticism Before Skills
Improving heath and safety in youth baseball through conditioning
By: Jim Ronai MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Member, USA Baseball Medical/Safety Advisory Committee

It is well documented that baseball maintains enormous popularity in the United States. The fundamentals of how the game is played remain relatively constant. However, the methods and practices whereby players are coached and developed continue to evolve. The definition of successful participation has taken on new meaning to many of the 9 million participants between the ages of 9-17.

In many instances, the goal of learning and perfecting the fundamentals of baseball, while having fun, has been replaced by an emphasis on outcome and performance statistics. Opportunities for participation and exposure to baseball continue to increase. The youth baseball season is now longer and consists of 2 parts: the regular season and the all star season.

Participation on multiple teams, year round participation and the evolution of scouting showcases are just a few of the many well documented factors identified as contributors to a rise in the incidence of shoulder and elbow injuries to young baseball players.

The majority of injuries in youth baseball are of the overuse variety and typically affect the athletes whom are involved most in games and practices. Specifically, overuse injuries to the pitcher are in all likelihood related to increases in intensity and volume of pitching along with increased frequency and duration of play.

Another major contributor to the rise in injury rates to youth baseball pitchers is the lack of age appropriate, year round formal conditioning.

In the absence of developmentally appropriate flexibility, core balance, neuromuscular coordination, agility, strength and endurance, players are unable to meet the progressive physical and skill specific demands of the game as they graduate through the various levels of youth baseball.

Time Constraints

Most coaches will agree that the most limiting factor associated with their ability to teach and coach is a lack of practice time. Consequently, the emphasis of most practices is on batting practice and position specific fielding and throwing. The goal of the practice is to raise the level of fundamental execution of the players, whether in the batter's box, on the mound or in the field.

Unfortunately, coaches ignore the fact that without the basic elements of athleticism achieved through consistent conditioning, most players do not posses the physical skills necessary for them to assimilate a coaches instruction and master a given baseball specific skill.

Most people would agree, a stable, well built home cannot be constructed without some form of solid foundation or footing. Nor can an athlete properly and efficiently execute a complex athletic movement without a foundation of athletic skills. To that end, it is not reasonable for coaches and parents to expect 10 and 11-year-old physically immature kids to throw a ball with velocity, accuracy and consistency without a foundation of core strength, balance coordination, strength, agility or endurance.

Without taking away from the intent of baseball practices and games, efficient and effective methods of team athletic conditioning need to be implemented by trained strength and conditioning professionals and adopted by leagues.

Food for Thought

Baseball is a game that involves bursts of energy expenditure followed by periods of recovery and relative inactivity. The game requires balance, coordination, core strength, agility, endurance, speed and general upper and lower body strength. The challenge for most coaches is to implement a pre-practice or pre-game conditioning routine that effectively addresses these areas while allowing for most remaining time to be spent on baseball skills.

Preparation for sport:

Substituting sport specific movement based dynamic flexibility in place of traditional static stretching exercises is an efficient way of preparing a player for the demands of their sport. After all, baseball is a sport that is played in an upright, weight-bearing position. From a performance enhancement perspective, there is very little carry over from static; ground based stretching routines performed in a seated or laying position.

Ideas for successful programming

Organizing a team into several equally distributed lines and having them perform a series of weight bearing, multiplane and rotational movements while stabilizing their abdominal muscles is an excellent method of gaining flexibility, balance, coordination and core strength. Repeating the routine before each game or practice in the same order facilitates motor learning and skill acquisition that equates to consistent improvement over the course of the entire season, thus positively influencing overall athleticism. As participants gain proficiency in their routines, the time required to execute, the routine diminishes thus leaving more time for other activities.

Coaches and parents interested in developing movement based athletic development routines can do so by contacting a local strength and conditioning certified coach in their area or by researching programs documented in books and journal publications. The National Strength and Conditioning Association is an excellent source of information in the area of age and sport specific athletic skill enhancement. (www.nsca-lift.org)

Additional, current sources of information and programming in the area of athletic skill development are current texts by Strength and Conditioning coaches Mark Verstegen and Mike Boyle. Verstegen's Core Performance and Boyle's Functional Training for Sport are excellent references for parents and coaches. Coaches, athletes and parents can also direct questions to the USA Baseball Medical and Safety Advisory Committee: www.info@usabaseball.com.

Jim Ronai is a Physical Therapist, Certified Athletic Trainer and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is the Director of Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine at Rehabilitation Associates, Inc. in Milford, Connecticut and is the Director of Jim Ronai's Competitive Edge,LLC, Speed, Conditioning and Strength training in Connecticut.