Part 2 - Throwers Edition
Players across NYC and different parts of the United States are itching to get back on the fields and feel some kind of normalcy in these uncertain times. There’s no doubt the effects of COVID-19 stretch far beyond baseball. However, areas across the U.S. are reopening and the pressure is being put on organizations to practice and eventually play. We can anticipate teams and tournament directors making every necessary effort to get in as many games as possible. This can be both great and problematic, as it can cause a spike in arm injuries like we’ve never seen before.
Last week we highlighted some things that all players can do to get back in shape. Since then we’ve had requests asking about our thoughts on pitchers returning to play too quickly and putting themselves at risk of serious injury.
EVERYONE IS AT EQUAL RISK
Although most parents and coaches are worried about the health of their pitchers’ arms (we hope), this abnormal pause to play will affect all players the same. Position players are at just as high of a risk as pitchers. In fact, I would argue that position players are at a higher risk than pitchers. It is likely that many position players have been swinging the bat more than throwing when given the chance. They are responsible for putting runs up on the board after all. But if you look closely at the throws most position players are asked to make during a game, they’re mostly high intensity throws.
Pitchers at least train to throw at that high intensity for a longer period of time, position players are asked to do it maybe 3-5 times per game. My point; all it takes is one, and that one is heightened by taking a cavalier attitude towards arm care and conditioning. This makes throwing with a plan that much more important. Below is a deeper dive into a safe way to return to throwing. It is important to understand that all players are different and react differently to set programs. This makes it important for coaches and trainers to pay close attention to their athletes and monitor their arms together. It takes a village.
Return to Throwing
The million dollar question: How long will it take to get my arm back in shape? The answer, we don’t know. There are simply too many factors and variables that fall into place that determine whether or not a players arm is game-ready. With that said, we suggest taking at-least two weeks to rebuild your arm strength in preparation for competition. Assuming you only have two weeks, throwing less than 3-5 times per week will not allow for a substantial amount of throws in time for competition and a recipe for disaster. Your first bullpen should be thrown at the end of the second week and should be not exceed 25 pitches. This does not include any throws prior to the bullpen.
It is important to note the variables that can be controlled during our return to throwing: the volume of throws and their intensity. Paying close attention to the two will give you an immense amount of information and will help guide you through training, bullpens and ultimately your season. It’ll be tough to gather information from the two if we jump straight into games for the following reasons:
How many teams have enough coaches that are monitoring the amount throws per game (this includes pre-game warmup, bullpen, in-between innings, etc.)
In game competition leads to rational decisions by coaches “Johnny hit his pitch count but we’re up by one with their best hitter up. We’ll let him finish the inning.”
"Johnny just pitched six innings and he’s got to play shortstop in the second game of a double-header.”
There are a ton of additional reasons that can be plugged in here but I’m sure you get my point. Fortunately for us, there’s a ton of research and tools that can be used to monitor arm use during games. The intensity will be a combination of self-assessment and a coach or parent paying close attention to the athletes rate of exertion. Their ROE should be paid attention to closely by asking questions before, during and after a throwing session and by keeping recorded data of amount of throws and velocity of throws. Constant communication is key to early detection or eliminating the chances of pain and injury. You can track this by writing notes on how you felt after your throwing session or practice. Keeping notes on your health can help the athlete monitor their workload safely as well as build self-awareness. Intent during bullpens should be kept at 80-90%. If you have more than 2 weeks to prepare, we suggest sticking to the above mentioned plan and wait until week three to throw your first bullpen. Throwing 3-5 times a week will give the arm an adequate amount of volume and rest needed to properly recover from a brief hiatus.
Designing the Program
When designing the actual throwing program, you must take into consideration the fact that all athletes are different. There are many great programs available out there but the key is understanding your athletes' needs during that time and knowing which warmup routine, pre and post throwing routine and throwing is appropriate for the athlete. Is it smart to add weighted balls after a long break? Or should your first session include long toss? Knowing your athlete and having an open line of communication is the first step to designing a solid throwing program.
The next step would be your athletes warmup routine. Every warmup routine should include a combination of foam/lacrosse ball rollouts, dynamic movements, mobility and stability exercises, static stretches (a small amount doesn’t hurt) and sprints. Keep in mind that throwing is a full body activity and should be taken seriously. A proper warmup can help prevent future injuries.
Now that the body is warm, it’s time to pay close attention to the arm. A proper pre-throwing routine that includes bands, shoulder perturbations and shoulder tube exercises (or a good substitute). For those who like to add plyoballs and wrist-weights, that is completely up to you and your athlete. Here at 360, we only add those tools when the athletes body is mature enough and prepared to handle it.
Once your warmup and pre-throwing routine are done, you are now ready to throw. Again, there are a lot of great throwing programs out there but listening to your athletes arm is vital to his/her long term health. We’re huge fans of long toss and the infinite amount of benefits it brings but our first throwing session should be a modified version of long toss. This way you see how the arm reacts to about half to 3/4 your athletes normal workload.
If there aren’t any issues, then proceed closer to max distance with the day after each session serving as immediate feedback. After throwing at your max distance for a couple of consecutive sessions, you can incorporate your pulldowns after hitting max distance. Throwing needs to be monitored in practice as well as we don’t want our athletes making unnecessary throws during practice. Coaches should be well aware of the amount of throws each of their athletes make during practice. A good idea would be to have a set amount of throws based on what coaches want to work on during that practice.
After our throwing session and practice is done, your athlete is ready for the most important part of their routine, recovery. The recovery part of your routine should include bands, shoulder tube, lacrosse ball and a foam roller. Again, there are other tools that can be used during this time but that is up to the athlete and their coach. We have plenty of tools to choose from but each athlete is treated based on their individual needs. No cookie cutting here.
So there you have it, a quick look into how to build a throwing program in preparation for post COVID-19 return to play. The key for coaches is to make sure we are doing our due diligence in providing a safe environment where athletes can strive for greatness while having the time of their lives. Being smarter and doing our research can go a long way when dealing with our youth athletes and can put the game of baseball in a better place. We coaches have a responsibility to guarantee that our players enjoy the game they love by staying as healthy as possible.
For more information regarding a return to throwing program for your athlete, be sure to e-mail us at email@example.com