Saving Our National Pastime

 My son, Kaleb, at the 2008 Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.

My son, Kaleb, at the 2008 Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.

It’s time for the mid-Summer classic: the Major League Baseball All-Star Game — which marks the halfway point of the 162-game regular season schedule and offers us the opportunity to celebrate flamethrowers, Gold Glovers, and the Sultans of Swat. 

Meanwhile, somewhere across America an early-maturing 6’1” 12U All-Star is pitching in his third game in two days for his second team. And when not pitching, he’s either playing catcher or shortstop. Research shows this is a recipe for injury.

Elsewhere, in an operating room, an orthopedic surgeon performs Tommy John surgery on a 16-year-old. And on the hot, dusty Great Plains, weeds cover the infield as the game continues to lose participants to more “active” sports like soccer or lacrosse.

These are the realities of youth baseball. Often referred to as our national pastime, baseball is definitely facing some challenges today.

These challenges, along with others facing many youth sports, have not gone unnoticed by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, the national governing body of the sport. In a joint effort to begin addressing the issues facing the sport, the leading baseball organizations released its LTAD plan in September 2017. As stated in the press release by USA Baseball's Chief Development Officer Rick Riccobono, the impetus for the LTAD initiative stemmed from an audit of the amateur landscape that identified the following challenges:

  • Inadequate coach education
  • Lack of structured guidance throughout a player's childhood and adolescence
  • Early single-sport specialization
  • Year-round play
  • Disproportionate ratio between development and competition
  • Increasing costs of participation (i.e., travel teams, private facilities)

Similar to a recent article on LTAD in basketball, I will summarize the LTAD plan for baseball and provide some additional commentary on possible solutions.

 

Before LTAD (or, the Original LTAD): Game Modifications

For quite some time, baseball has provided a game-type model that includes developmentally appropriate modifications to playing field dimensions, equipment, and rules. Following a few years of unstructured wiffle ball games in the schoolyard and backyard, many of us were probably first exposed to organized baseball via tee ball. Tee ball was then followed by parent or coach pitch, before a player pitch game in some sort of Little League.  

From here, additional modifications in field dimensions and rules progress with increasing distances of the pitching mound and bases along with rule modifications such as leading off base, stealing bases, substitutions, etc., depending on the league or organization (i.e., Babe Ruth, Little League, Cal Ripken, Pony, etc.). For example, Little League dimensions are 46’ pitching and 60’ bases, while Pony League uses 54’ pitching and 80’ bases. Some local modifications are also used with progressions every two years from age 10 to 14 years. Pitching may increase from 46’ to 50’ to 54’ and bases from 60’ to 70’ to 80’ before reaching regulation distances of 60’6” pitching and 90’ bases. In most cases, youngsters around the age of 14 years are playing regulation rules and field dimensions.

Although game and rule modifications are important to account for the developmental differences during childhood and allow for the game to actually be played (can you imagine, or have you seen, a 10-year-old on a regulation-sized field?!), there are also other facets of player development that need to be considered to truly embrace LTAD. At times, we get caught thinking that a program fits LTAD principles just because of the progression in playing field, equipment and rules. However, LTAD principles need to account for all aspects of physical, psychosocial, and cognitive development of the young athlete. And this is just the approach taken by USA Baseball. Let’s take a look.

 

The USA Baseball LTAD Model: An Overview

eisenmann-baseball-stages.png

Similar to other U.S. National Governing Bodies, the USA Baseball LTAD model follows the principles outlined by the USOC American Development Model based upon the work of Balyi as outlined in a previous article.  

To go beyond the game-type pathway, the USA Baseball LTAD model addresses each of the following key components within each stage of the model summarized below:

  • Physical Literacy
  • Physical Development
  • Injury Prevention
  • Psychosocial Well-Being
  • Specialization
  • Periodization and Competition

The USA Baseball LTAD model consists of seven stages across two tracks: the Recreational track (Participation pathway) and the Advanced track (Performance pathway). The Advanced track begins at age 14-16 years; however, the reality is that many adults (coaches and parents) consider their athletes in the Advanced pathway from earlier ages with travel and/or All-Star teams and nearly year-round participation!

A summary of stages 1 to 5 (Activate to Apply or Entry through High School) is provided here. For key points within each category in each stage mentioned above, visit usabltad.com.
 

The 5 Stages of the USA Baseball LTAD Model

Stage 1:  Activate — Entry to 7 years of age

  • Foster a love for the game by introducing children to the sport of baseball through styles of gameplay that promote fun, creative play, and success.

  • Athletes in this stage should be developing basic movement and motor skills via sport sampling.
  • Baseball should also be a means for developing friendships and encouraging other positive peer interaction.
  • Proper warm-up and cool-downs should be part of the sport experience.
 

Stage 2: Discover — 7–12 years of age

  • Basic baseball skills are being fostered and in some cases honed.
  • Athletic movement should become more advanced as speed, agility, balance, and general coordination all improve.
  • Athletes should be in an environment where they learn to be motivated to succeed, while continuing positive social development amongst teammates and competitors.
  • Sport sampling and informal or deliberate play continue to promote well-roundedness.
  • Injury awareness, including arm care, should be present for the athlete, their coach, and parents.
 

Stage 3: Progress — 12–14 years of age

  • Skill training is now becoming more specific and should include mechanical elements and awareness. Athletes should be self-motivated and will begin understanding how to self-diagnose aspects of their training and performance.
  • Physical development should be technique driven and age appropriate, and overall wellness should include proper arm care planning.
  • Competency (success or self-improvement) is important in this stage, as is a continued multi-sport approach.
  • While competitive play will increase, more time should still be spent training proportionately.
 

Stage 4: Develop — 14–16 years of age (e.g., Frosh/JV)

  • The athletes' physical and skill development should become increasingly individualized and should cater to their own growth, and be specific to their preferred position(s).
  • Safe training practices should be maintained, and rest and recovery after workouts, practices, and games remain imperative.
  • Fostering a positive social environment that includes opportunity for self-determination for the athlete, and open communication between the athlete, parents, and coaches will aid in success on and off the field.
  • In appropriate instances, specialization may occur in this stage, but multi-sport athletics are still encouraged.
 

Stage 5: Apply — 16–18 years of age (e.g., Varsity)

  • Training and practices should be working towards team and individual optimization.
  • Athletes should be able to use self-observation to identify mechanical and other skill deficiencies. Strength and conditioning activities should be athlete specific and should maintain an approach that ensures total body fitness, muscular strength and motor skill competency.
  • Athletes should maintain an individualized arm care program, especially as the amount of competition increases over time.
  • Single-sport specialization among advanced athletes may occur.
  • The promotion of positive developmental environments within teams and personal training settings remains important.
 

A Few Points to Consider

 Coach Eisenmann discussing quality at-bats with an East Lansing (MI) Junior Varsity player in 2011.

Coach Eisenmann discussing quality at-bats with an East Lansing (MI) Junior Varsity player in 2011.

Physical Development

Similar to all LTAD models, stages 1 and 2 (<12 years of age) place an emphasis on unstructured play, fundamental movement skill acquisition, and physical literacy. And quite frankly, this is where we go wrong. We rush, skipping the vital steps of teaching fundamental or foundational movement skills like hopping, skipping, jumping, squatting, lunging, push-up, etc. 

Think about cooking a great meal — it takes time. If you rush and leave out key ingredients or don’t allow things to simmer and stew, etc., the meal is not as tasty. Parents and coaches tend to want an “accelerated” or microwaved pathway. 

Unlike 3-time All-Star John Kruk who said “I'm not an athlete, I'm a baseball player,” most coaches want general athleticism in young players and youngsters in general. Therefore, let’s allow time to teach, coach, develop, and discover motor competency. These are, by the way, essentially required to play the game — run, throw, catch, strike. Similar to other youth sports, coaches are focusing on tactics — installing bunt defenses, 1st and 3rd defenses, pick-off plays, etc. — instead of honing the fundamental skills.  

 

What About Unstructured Play?

 Dominican Republic youth engaging in unstructured free play.

Dominican Republic youth engaging in unstructured free play.

Unstructured play is activity that kids create on their own without adult guidance. In the summer of 2013, I accompanied a group of boys from our local summer team to the Dominican Republic. During our barnstorming tour, I was very observant of the younger kids who hung out around the ballpark and in the streets and parks. They would assemble themselves and play some sort of game, whether it be stickball or a version of “pickle,” running between two points while the fielders would try to get them out. I also witnessed three games being played simultaneously on a single full-sized field: one game occupying the infield and two others in the left field and right field corners. Besides the kids, there was a teenage umpire (more like a moderator) for each game and the league director facilitating — not coaching — everything.  

Each of these instances brought me back to my youth — days of backyard wiffle ball, pickle, throwing a racquetball against the wall and working on fielding ground balls, playing “500” to work on fielding fly balls, etc. Why can’t we structure practice like this? Even a portion of practice. The answer: coaches like control.

 

Throwing and Arm Care

 Know the risk factors for arm injury and determine the risk for a young player  here .

Know the risk factors for arm injury and determine the risk for a young player here.

Another aspect mentioned throughout the USA Baseball LTAD model is arm care. The epidemic of throwing arm injuries and Tommy John surgery has been well-documented in the past few years among MLB pitchers, and even down into the high school and middle school years! Arm care starts in stages 1 and 2 with the development of proper throwing mechanics. Again, drive by any baseball field and you will see kids warming up playing catch without supervision, instruction and feedback (i.e., coaching). 

In terms of prevention, introducing strength training exercises using body weight, medicine ball and resistance tubing exercises is also appropriate at these early stages. In essence, we are teaching proper body mechanics through foundational movement skills of squat, lunge, pushing, pulling, and rotating. Think about how many youngsters have difficulty doing a push-up or body weight squat with correct form. The body weight squat, lunge, and jumps are foundational movements that can enhance strength of the lower body, which is the engine for throwing the baseball. A strong lower body will reduce the stress on the throwing arm and can improve throwing velocity. 

Finally, coaches and parents should not only be aware of the Pitch Smart guidelines, but also adhere to them. I hear a lot of grumblings about pitch counts from youth and high school coaches. I also remember as a youngster lathering up my throwing arm with a topical, petrolatum-based analgesic (e.g., Cramergesic, BenGay, etc.) and taking an Acetaminophen to relieve the pain and allow me to attempt to throw as I rotated from the deadly trio: pitcher to catcher to shortstop. As a college sophomore, I also suffered a season-ending rotator cuff injury. And I know several high school athletes who have exited the game early due to arm problems and several adults who have trouble with push-ups and activities of daily living related to overhead movement. 

 

Possible Solutions

  1. Hold a meeting for all baseball stakeholders to discuss the USA Baseball LTAD framework. Build buy-in across all stakeholders.
  2. More than likely your program or community has the game type format model.  If not, consider adopting it — tee-ball, coach pitch, player pitch with increasing field dimensions from age 8-14 years, and then onto high school baseball. If possible, the high school coach(es) can be involved in the youth program by providing coach education, serving as a director of coaching or director of player development, hosting camps and clinics, etc.
  3. Consider offering USA Baseball-related events like Fun At Bat for beginners and Play Ball events like Pitch, Hit and Run or Jr Home Run Derby.
  4. Modify the practice structure to remove the 3 L’s—laps, lines, and lectures. 
  5. Start practice with an integrated neuromuscular dynamic warm-up aimed at improving fundamental movement skills. Also consider a body weight strength training circuit.
  6. Prioritize teaching and coaching the fundamentals—throwing and catching, fielding and hitting.
  7. Allow multiple repetitions via station-based drills for both offensive and defensive skill development. 
  8. Allow free unstructured time which might include 3 vs. 3 wiffle ball.
  9. Keep in mind the cognitive abilities of the young athlete when introducing and practicing team offense and defense. 
I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game.
— Walt Whitman
 

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Joe Eisenmann, PhD, is the Head of Sport Science at Volt Athletics. Dr. Eisenmann has 25+ years of experience as a university professor, researcher, sport scientist, strength and conditioning coach, and sport coach. He joins the Volt team as an advisor on sports science and data analytics, contributing to the Volt Blog on topics around long-term athlete development (LTAD).
Learn more about Dr. Eisenmann | @Joe_Eisenmann