An all too common belief in softball circles is that the underhand pitching motion is, “more natural,” and thus less stressful. It’s very easy to find one girl whom pitches almost all, or all, the games for her high school team in a season. In fact, I recently become aware of a high school sophomore that threw 174 pitches in a game! Think about that for a bit: 174 pitches in one game! Likewise, it’s very common for girls playing travel softball to pitch in back to back games on the same day and 3-4 games over the course of a 2 day travel tournament from age 8 and up.
Where did this belief come from that somehow underhand windmill pitching is minimally stressful and it’s okay to just have girls pitch as often as needed? It’s certainly not supported in research at all.
Dr. Glenn Fleisig and Dr. James Andrews who are both highly respected surgeons and researchers at the American Sports Medicine Institute (and Dr. Andrews is the famous Tommy John surgeon for a lot of baseball players), along with some of their colleges, published this article looking at forces in a windmill pitch: softball pitching stress
What did they find? How about the fact peak compressive forces reach 70-98% of bodyweight at the shoulder and elbow during a underhand pitch. Or that shoulder extension and adduction (when arm is brought through the delivery across the chest) reach levels of 9-10% of Bodyweight x height. Hardly a non-stressful pitch.
A similar study of 24, elite, Olympic softball pitchers by Werner et al…reported shoulder distraction forces averaged 80% of bodyweight. The authors also concluded the distraction forces in softball pitching are very similar to those found in baseball pitching, thus putting softball pitchers at risk for overuse injury. olympic softball pitchers study
If those studies are clear enough as to the fact that windmill pitching is indeed very stressful, then how about some injury rate statistics?
Sauers et.al.. surveyed 25 softball pitchers (10 high school, 15 college) and found 64% of them reported a history of an arm injury. Of the 64%, nearly 1/2, 31% had to miss 10 or more days of activity due to injury. arm injury survey
Another study by Loosli et. al. in which 8 of the top 15 ranked collegiate softball teams from the 1989 season where given an injury survey reported 26 total injuries. Of those, 11 were considered time loss injuries in which up to 7 weeks of time was missed. Of those 11; 82% were upper extremity injuries. Top 15 team injury survery
In a 2001 study, Meyers et al. reported that 52% of all softball injuries require 3 weeks or more of treatment. They also reported that of all injuries; 23-47% were upper extremity in nature. This was from 2001 and the popularity and number of girls especially young girls, playing has only risen. Therefore it’s not a stretch that those injury %’s have also risen.
The authors also directly stated, “the increasing prevalence of overtraining syndrome among athletes has been attributed to an unclear definition of optimal training zone, poor communication between player and coach, and the limited ability of bone and connective tissue to respond to match the demands of the sport. This has led routinely to arm, shoulder, and lumbar instability, chronic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) use and time loss injuries in 45% of pitching staff during a single season.” softball time loss injuries
This data is only regarding upper extremity injuries. There are also a significant number of softball pitchers that experience injuries to their lower back or hips. Research is also clear that young athletes, with still developing bones, tendons and ligaments aren’t as equipped to handle higher volumes of training and intensity compared to fully mature athletes. Research also shows that the single biggest risk factor of injury is a previous injury. So while a 12 year old having to be shut down from softball pitching for 6 weeks due to elbow pain may not seem like the end of the world to some; it should be very concerning because that young girl just increased her risk of a future injury.
Despite the research and injury risk; the sheer number of young softball athletes who are subjected to high pitch volumes is not going down. It’s time to change that.
While there is not as much overall research on softball injuries compared to research on baseball injuries, there is more than enough research to show that softball injuries are a real thing. Most importantly: enough research to show that the myth of softball windmill pitching being more natural and thus less stressful is false and needs to be discarded from all softball circles as quickly as possible. It’s time to stop arguing with science and start protecting our young, female softball pitchers.