Sunday, March 11, 2012

Shooting a canon from a canoe...

Spring is upon us and that always reminds me that the baseball season is right around the corner.   All of the major league teams have reported for Spring Training and already a few injuries have hit players after a long winter.  One of these injured players will not surprise Tiger fans.  Former Tiger Joel Zumaya suffered an elbow injury and he will miss the entire 2012 season. 
Zumaya burst onto the scene in 2006 as a hard throwing relief pitcher who was a big contributor for a Tiger team that eventually made the World Series.  That season was the peak of Zumaya’s professional baseball career.  Ever since then he has been plagued with one injury after another and has never come close to playing a full season since 2006.
Due to my strong interest in the youth developmental process I wanted to explore a hunch I had regarding Zumaya’s athletic upbringing. 
Joel was an intimidating hitter and pitcher from the first time he stepped on a ball field. He threw harder than anyone his age, and hit the ball a mile. * This bit of information was about what I expected.  Because of his physical size and strength Zumaya never had to learn how to play the game in order to enjoy success.  All he had to do was overpower and intimidate the smaller kids.
While this approach ultimately took him to the pinnacle of the sport he wasn’t able to sustain a career because of a poor developmental foundation. Baseball is a sport about control.  Power and speed are tremendous assets to posses but they must be harnessed.  As an example imagine a car racing on an oval track, will the fastest car always win the race?  It may but only if the driver has the finesse to handle the corners and the traffic on the track.  If he were just to drive pedal to the metal (that’s how Zumaya pitched) he would likely crash into the wall or the other cars.
Zumaya’s injuries are similar to crashing, eventually the reckless driving catches up to you and you finally burn up (Zumaya is considering retirement at 27 years of age).  Based upon what I have witnessed over the years Zumaya was not a great athlete he did not move particularly well, the oft repeated phrase “a bull in a china shop comes to mind.”  Athleticism is a great buffer and is the foundation for athletes that are highly resistant to injury.  Power potential with out a solid base of support is about as useful as shooting a canon from a canoe.
Contrast Zumaya’s career with another young Tiger that burst onto the scene in the 2006 season, Justin Verlander.  A few no-hitters, CY Young award (baseballs top pitcher) and league MVP later Verlander is arguably the best pitcher in the sport.  Verlander’s fastball is just as lethal as Zumaya’s ever was but he learned to pitch and play the game at slower speeds.
Verlander is terrific athlete and that allows him to harness his power and use it effectively and consistently.  And despite having thrown over 1300 innings since the 2006 season he has never missed a game due to injury.
It’s also worth noting that Zumaya grew up in Southern California and always dreamed about pitching in the big leagues.  He played and threw year round with no breaks.  Despite his size that workload was a tremendous amount of stress for a developing young athlete to endure.  This may not have been a factor in his injuries but it certainly didn’t help.
Verlander didn’t start to take the game seriously until he turned 13 years old and his dad could no longer handle his fastball.  So dad shipped him off to a baseball academy.  Verlander grew up in Virginia and did not play year round and was forced to play other sports indoors at least for a few months. Year round baseball is never a good idea, even the pros take 3 months off and the rest of the season they work with professional trainers and therapists to keep them functioning at a high level.  Due to it’s one-sided nature (throw right or left, hit right or left) developmental imbalances need to be monitored.
Another key for developing the injury resistant and highly skilled young athletes is diversity.  Verlander played shortstop and third base in addition to pitching as an adolescent athlete.  He took the time to develop his complete game.  It may seem counterintuitive but if you want to develop into a great pitcher you need to gain experience at multiple positions.  If someone were ever crazy enough to ask me to be a youth baseball coach I would have all the kids throw with both hands and swing from both sides of the plate.  We may not win many games with this approach early on (development and experience over wins and losses for pre-teens) but in the long run it would pay off with superbly skilled and injury resistant athletes when it matters the most (late teens).
As coaches, parents and teachers we should avoid labeling children with tags such as “she’s a goalie or he’s a pitcher…” That is unfair to place that burden on a child.  Here’s a better approach:  “this is Sarah she loves playing hockey but now that spring is right around the corner she can’t wait to start playing soccer!”
You may argue that Zumaya made it to the big leagues with a one-dimensional approach but that should not be the end game for our young sport participants.  The chances of a youth sport participant playing a sport professionally or even high level college athletics is rare at best.  If they are good enough it will be a side effect of following a sound developmental athletic upbringing.  Zumaya may have gotten his foot in the door but he never reached his full potential.  And because he was not a highly regarded high school player he did not get a big signing bonus and never made big money in the pros.  What I am saying is he will have to find another way to make a living if he is forced to retire due to injuries.  For his sake I hope he had a plan “B!”
By The Numbers:
Statistically of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football every year, only 215 will ever make an NFL roster. That is 0.2%! Even of the 9,000 players that make it to the college level only 310 are invited to the NFL scouting combine, the pool from which teams make their draft picks."
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only between 3.2% and 6.6% (depending upon sport) of all high school varsity baseball, basketball, football, and soccer athletes will go on to play collegiately.

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