For The Love Of The Game

By Fred Engh

One of the most vivid memories I have from my days playing youth and high school baseball is the importance that was put on the best pitchers of those teams. Whether it was 12-year-old all-stars playing for a district title, 14-year-olds competing in the state tournament, or big high school games, there always seemed to be one guy on the team whom the coaches counted on to take the mound for those big games.

Photo: NAYS

Photo: NAYS

I can’t tell you how many times I sat with one of my teammates in the stands after a game—or even during games—icing an arm that he literally could not lift from his side because he had thrown so many pitches. And then two or three days later he was out there on the mound again.

My dad, the founder of our organization, has told the story a hundred times of the coach who walked out to the mound during one of my brothers’ games and told the 11-year-old pitcher, who was close to tears because of arm pain, “Be a man. Do you want to lose this game?” In fact, my father claims to this day that that incident was one of the main reasons he was inspired to start a coach-training organization.

That was years ago, before the advent of pitch counts that have been implemented by most organizations, but it was also a time when kids played summer ball and then put their gloves away in the fall and played other sports until spring rolled around. Today, the problem is different, but the challenge is the same. There may be pitch counts in certain organized settings, but the multitude of opportunities for year-round play can negate those rules quickly. I know many kids who play on different travel teams at the same time, or play on rec teams, travel teams, and school teams simultaneously. Who, other than the parents and players, is tracking pitch counts in those situations?

What this adds up to is a disturbing trend, or what many doctors are calling an epidemic. When you hear a leading orthopedic surgeon say that the largest group requiring Tommy John surgery is players under 18 years old, we as recreation professionals should stop and take notice. What is the message we are sending to young athletes? Are we making it clear to them that experiencing pain is something they need to alert their coaches to rather than remaining silent and attempting to “play through it” because they think it’s a part of being an athlete? Christopher Ahmad, head team physician for the New York Yankees, whose office is inundated with young athletes in need of Tommy John surgery, told us: “There is no reason why a kid should play through pain. If he has pain, we have to develop a culture where he can speak freely about it and not feel pressured that he is letting his team down or that he is weak if he needs to rest for a period of time.”

It’s also up to recreation professionals to offer a variety of programs spaced throughout the year that provide opportunities for children and teens to play different sports and, most importantly, require them to use different muscles and motions so overuse or burnout doesn’t sabotage their love of sports and leading active lifestyles.

Let’s see what some Certified Youth Sports Administrators have to say about how they go about dealing with these issues:

Miste Adams, Recreation Superintendent for the National Trail (Ohio) Parks and Recreation District: We do not offer year-round sports. We have short seasons if we offer a sport in more than its traditional season. For example, we offer spring soccer, but it is only a six-week season in March and April. Our fall season is a little more in-depth, a 10-week program that begins in August and runs into October. We do not offer soccer leagues during the summer. We also offer multiple sports throughout the year to encourage different skills. We try to not overlap the sports so kids can play all of them. As far as injuries, we leave this up to the parent, unless it is a concussion, and then we have our protocol for that. But with our seasons being short, usually a player who is injured is not released by a doctor in time to return to play.

Jeffrey Bernstein, Director of Simply Sports (N.Y.): It is difficult since kids play with multiple organizations. However, within our program, we build in a two-week break between the fall and winter season and again during the winter and spring season. And we encourage families to have their kids dial back their activity in that sport during the break.

Lacy Freeman, Recreation Programmer at the City of Mesa (Ariz.) Youth Sports: In general, if a child is injured, we notify the parents, and it is their call when a child is allowed to come back to play. Our city legal team right now does not allow for us to require a doctor’s note to return. On our website we talk about the importance of experiencing a wide variety of sports.

Rance Gaede, Recreation Superintendent for City of Tamarac (Fla.) Parks & Recreation: When a player has sustained an injury, either in our program or outside, and we are aware of the injury, he or she must have a doctor’s release to return to the program as an active participant. We stress the importance of playing multiple sports and space ours out accordingly, allowing parents to enroll kids in all the sports we offer throughout the year with no conflict.

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.