Parents, It's Time To Step Up to the Plate
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
It's on us. We, the parents of softball pitchers, must protect them -- their arms, their health, their futures. We must not simply accept the idea that a girl can windmill endlessly without physical consequences. It is not safe. It is not natural. We cannot pretend we don't know.
It's not our fault, really. We've been told it's OK to let her stand in the circle and throw and throw and throw. But surely we've been told other things before and countered the logic.
Certainly someone once said, "We rode our bicycles without helmets and never got hurt." Yet we still strapped the protective gear on our child, because it's not worth the risk.
We must bring that mind-set and sense of responsibility to the fields next time along with the chair, coffee and phone. Watch our daughters. Stop and think about what's happening in her shoulder, elbow and wrist. Again and again and again.
Coaches aren't always going to put a player's health and future first, and sometimes they don't know if a child is ailing.
"The people who are most responsible for helping to avoid injuries in kids are the parent and kid," said Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist and managing partner of Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Ala.
Parents must step in when necessary and, equally as important, they must make sure their kids know to speak up when anything hurts.
"At every parent meeting I go to, I encourage parents to sit down with their kids -- and it doesn't matter what age group they're in up through high school -- sit down with your children and make sure they know they can come to you and tell you how they feel," said Dugas, who has worked alongside preeminent orthopedic surgeon James Andrews since 1999. "That you expect them to tell you how they feel."
Throwing, any kind of throwing, should never include pain for a young athlete, according to Dugas.
"There are times the kids just have to say, 'Not today,' " he said. "That's a hard thing for a teenager to do. They don't want to do that. They're dis-incentivized to speak up."
Youth sports are big business, with club teams and year-round training facilities and talk of college scholarships. Parents have played a part in that evolution, for sure -- now it's time to be part of the solution.
"They're really their only advocate," said Sherry Werner, a sports medicine researcher who runs Sherry Werner Fastpitch Academy in Fort Worth, Texas, where she tries to get parents to understand what her research and Ph.D. in biomechanics and years in the softball world have taught her.
"I have a handful of girls whose parents are proud as punch if she pitches eight games in a weekend. They don't get it."
Diana Schraer coaches North Jersey youth pitchers and does her best to educate parents to speak up as well.
"Unfortunately, a lot of times it takes an injury to spark the interest of people starting to advocate in terms of pitch time for their kids," Schraer said.
Brittany Baiunco never thought she'd be injured. Her father was very careful to make sure she iced and stretched after every workout, she said. But The Record's softball player of the decade for 2000-2010 is now 25, and the anchors that helped surgically repair her torn labrum creak in the rain. If she reaches back too far when putting on her shirt, the former Ramapo star "tweaks" her pitching shoulder -- which also suffered a torn rotator cuff -- and is sore for days.
When asked her advice for parents of young pitchers, she said, "First and foremost, it should always be about health. Educate yourself about the specific sport your child is playing. ... Whether it's softball pitching or you're throwing a baseball, there's still a limit. Just being conscious of that."
At a college showcase tournament in October, a mom watched her daughter, a prominent Bergen County high school pitcher. The girl has been pitching just about year-round since she started at age 9 or so. Pitching coach. Club teams. All in. Just like everybody else.
Asked if she was concerned about her daughter being injured by overuse, the mother dutifully repeated the "safe and natural, not-like-baseball" refrain. When told the contrary opinions of doctors and researchers, she dismissed it.
"They are wrong," she said, adding that doctors don't know everything.
Fair point. But this is not one doctor or even two. Many highly qualified, experienced sports medicine specialists and researchers say softball pitchers need rest and restriction. And what if we add the preeminent orthopedic surgeon in the country to that list?
In his book "Any Given Monday," Dr. James Andrews -- orthopedic surgeon to superstar professional athletes -- said that the windmill motion is neither safe nor natural, and there needs to be pitch counts and mandatory rest for softball pitchers.
Andrews is the biggest name on a list of specialists who say softball pitching injuries are on the rise, and overuse is the reason. At what point -- and to whom -- will we listen? What number of experts tips the scales and overturns the year-round youth sports culture that includes softball?
"We're going to reverse the trend when the kids and the parents see that it's in their best interest to moderate and play various sports," said Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, the not-for-profit sports medicine research and education foundation in Alabama that was founded by Andrews.
As parents, we must educate ourselves, understand and advocate for our children. It is the best thing we can do for their health and athletic future.
"The professional athletes -- whether it's soccer or basketball or baseball, male or female -- the professional athletes are number one and foremost athletes," said Fleisig.
"The ones who succeed were the ones who played multiple sports as little kids. It still is that way. They're the ones who do phenomenal things as far as keeping their balance and running quickly and great hand-eye coordination. Developing all of those things -- athleticism and fitness and coordination -- as a young kid is going to be your best plan instead of developing a particular skill or technique or motion as a young kid. The science and medicine has supported that and shown that."
Success and moderation are not an either/or proposition when it comes to softball pitching.
"You can be safe and play at a high level," Werner said.
There's something worth repeating.