LYNN NEARY, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Today in Your Health, Little League elbow. Some experts blame an increase in arm injuries on poor pitching techniques among young people. Others blame parents and leagues for pushing kids to compete too hard too young. One coach here in Washington, D.C. has ditched trophies and scorekeeping, and is teaching kids to play for the love of the game. Imagine that.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY reporting:
If I say childhood and summer, what's the first image that springs to mind? For Coach John McCarthy, it's his memory of rolling out of bed and going straight to his window where he had a bird's eye view of the neighborhood ball fields.
Mr. JOHN MCCARTHY (Little League Baseball Coach): I could look out of the second floor window and see the whole park and see what's going on. I mean, we'd check that window everyday, and if there was any action, we were there, man. We're not missing it. And if it was nice day, we'd make few phone calls. Next thing you know, four or five kids ride their bikes down and we're playing.
AUBREY: It was not organized ball, though he did on to captain his college team and play professionally in the minor leagues. The McCarthy brothers childhood game was a stripped down, make your own rules stick ball. Instead of bats, they now admit they usually stole neighbors' rakes.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Because you got to get a good, nice hard wood. So whoever shimmied under the garage had about 30 seconds to take the best rake out.
AUBREY: McCarthy would saw of the handle, which, for old time's sake, he demonstrates.
(Soundbite of saw)
AUBREY: Another kid would find a tennis ball, and the game was on.
Mr. MCCARTHY: You may want to sit over here.
(Soundbite of bat hitting a baseball)
Mr. MCCARTHY: A little help!
It just takes me one pitch, and I'm back in the mentality of competing. One pitch, and I want to do well. I love it.
AUBREY: This is how they passed endless summer days.
Mr. MCCARTHY: No one made us do it, we wanted to do it. Nobody watched. No one recorded at all. We just did it because we loved it. And six or seven of us went on to play to college baseball.
AUBREY: Three decades later, McCarthy is still not over stick ball, his brown curls still stick out of his baseball cap and his blue eyes still sparkle. He's no longer encouraging kids to steal rakes, but he is bringing hundreds of kids back to D.C.'s Friendship Park for baseball camps.
(Soundbite of kid's cheering)
AUBREY: In this era of scheduled play dates, scheduled lessons, formal leagues and all-star teams, McCarthy offers an alternative. He's trying revive the spirit of neighborhood ball.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Hey, it's going to be a great week. You ready to stretch them, R.J.?
R.J.: You know it, coach.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Let's go.
AUBREY: McCarthy breaks the kids down by age groups, and then he seems to be everywhere at once. He gives the seven year olds plastic balls and bats, lots of skinny arms and legs are sticking out from oversized blue t-shirts. A few kids where remnants of their Little League uniforms.
Mr. MCCARTHY: This game that we're playing right there is a very child-based directed game. The kids can keep score if they want to. I will not keep score for the children, because I don't care who wins or loses. It's not driven by uniform, scores, trophies. Like, we don't give trophies in this camp. Your reward is satisfaction of a day enjoyed the baseball field. If that's not enough, you shouldn't be playing.
(Soundbite of children shouting)
AUBREY: McCarthy comes off strong, but he's got a gentle touch. With a nine year old, he sees exactly what he likes: kids coaching kids.
(Soundbite of children shouting)
Mr. MCCARTHY: See, see. See how he's telling him where to throw it? That's good.
AUBREY: An outfielder throws the ball to the wrong base.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Why didn't go to second? That's good. See that? They're all happy. You don't need a coach saying go to second. They know how to play the game already. And now they know, next time throw it to second. Learning just happened right in front of us.
AUBREY: Learning not to breathe down kids' necks, to take a step back doesn't necessarily come naturally to coaches or parents. But Coach Mac takes his own childhood as some evidence that it's healthy. He didn't play any organized sports until eighth grade.
Unidentified Child #1: Hey, it's over the fence!
Unidentified Child #2: …to pick up the ball!
AUBREY: For today's kids, he wonders about the effects of putting them under the spotlight so young.
Mr. MCCARTHY: It has exploded now, and youth sports have exploded. And it's younger, it's more competitive, it's more seasons. And I just think that that's leading to burnout, and it's leading to arm injuries.
AUBREY: The extent at which more kids are being injured is unclear. A group of doctors at the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine has begun gathering numbers, and they've also released recommendations for prevention. One idea being tested now by little league baseball is a pitch count program that limits the number of times any one player can pitch during an inning. That might help protect players' arms.
(Soundbite of child shouting)
AUBREY: And, there's also a move to limit the curve ball. This pitch forces kids to quickly turn their arms when they throw. Some coaches love the curve for the competitive edge, but many doctors say the curve puts too much pressure on ligaments that are still developing.
Mr. MCCARTHY: The curve ball should be added when you're like 17 or 18. It should not be added when you're 10. But hypercompetitive coaches encourage it because they get wins. But it retards the players' development for the long run. I mean, my dream is to see my players succeed when they're 20, not 10.
AUBREY: McCarthy says he knows there's no turning back to the clock to that era when kids ran free all day until their moms called them home for dinner. But he wants the players to realize that they don't need uniforms or stadium lights to make competition real.
Mr. MCCARTHY: If you played that many hours, a kid, doing something, it never leaves you. It's part of your nature. I mean, I think that's what the real benefit of child play is. It makes you have a real hunger and desire to be a player and to compete and get better, and you love that feeling.
Unidentified Child: We're going to (unintelligible).
AUBREY: Some of his players are building that foundation for hardcore competition. Others are just flirting with the game, and that's fine. But every once in awhile, Coach Mac's infectious love of the game can turn a kid's life around. Like Anthony Taylor.
Mr. ANTHONY TAYLOR (Little League Baseball Coach): My dad wasn't in my life as much. My brother was out, you know, in the street, doing his thing, so I had needed a male. And that male came along.
AUBREY: Anthony and Coach Mac first met 14 years ago. At the time, McCarthy was playing for the Baltimore Orioles' farm team, and he was invited to Anthony's school to talk to the kids.
Mr. MCCARTHY: And at the end of the talk, I said, you know, guys, good luck. I'll see you down the road.
AUBREY: But on his way out the door, seven-year-old Anthony stopped him and asked him if he could stay and teach them to play ball. McCarthy remembers that moment. He says, looking back, maybe it was something in Anthony's eyes. But that simple request made him want to be a coach.
Within a few months, he started a lunchtime baseball program at Anthony's school, and eventually coached them in a league.
Mr. TAYLOR: I remember times when we would just completely just walking off the field, and just walk - going into the woods, just gone, because I was upset. And he came and got me, told me, you know, listen. You can't do that. You can't - it's going to hurt you in the long run. Everything is not going to go your way. It all worked out. I'm a great guy now, so, thanks to him.
AUBREY: Eventually, Anthony says he got it. He learned to have fun and he learned how to compete. Now he's on a full ride to college on a baseball scholarship.
For the summer, he's helping Coach Mac run the camp, and every day he brings with him a handful of kids from one of D.C.'s roughest neighborhoods.
Mr. TAYLOR: All of them are good kids, they're great kids. They're just, you know, they just need some leadership, the same way we needed it.
Toss it in Sam. Here we go. Hey you guys, we need an ump. We need an ump.
Mr. MCCARTHY: No! No, have a seat. This meeting has started!
AUBREY: At the end of each camp day, all the campers smoosh together on a row of bleachers.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Stephanie, right in front. Let's go.
AUBREY: For a little pep talk, and demonstrations.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Very nice job today on the second half of the game. I thought the games in the afternoon were very good. We're going to do a quick demonstration of framing. Who's got a ball for me?
AUBREY: As he pitches the ball to one of his team coaches, he tells the kids to watch closely.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Nice. Notice how coach's glove, it stays right there. It doesn't move that much.
AUBREY: Stillness, he tells them, is the key in batting, too. They need to keep their heads still, legs still, be in the moment. And the concentration for the swing will come, he tells them.
Mr. MCCARTHY: Sometimes our culture pushes our children out of the moment, to think about tomorrow, the next grade, next week.
AUBREY: But here, playing baseball, he wants the kids to own the moment.
Mr. MCCARTHY: I think as an athlete, the more you're centered and still, it allows you to see the ball travel, see the ball slower, see the play unfold. So I try to encourage all the children not only to be present to compete, but be present to enjoy what's happening.
AUBREY: When he talks to the kids about stillness, they know he's talking about baseball, but what they probably don't realize yet is that he's talking about life.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: You can find recommendations for preventing baseball injuries in kids by going to npr.org/yourhealth.