Overhand or sidearm for pitching, passing and serving?

Pitching a baseball, passing a football and serving a tennis ball all require the same basic throwing motion. These activities can place strain on the wrist, elbow and shoulder, with repetitive-stress injuries common among children who overdo their sports.

One way to alleviate shoulder problems might be to use a more side-arm throwing motion, rather than a true overhand motion for these three sports skills. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the basics of these two motions will help you better guide your child as he or she becomes more active in sports.

NOTE: Sport researchers do not universally agree on which motion is safer. It will be up to you to work with your child on passing, throwing and serving and to monitor the results.

Overhand motion

The overhand throwing motion, sometimes referred to as an overhead motion, includes an arm movement that takes the hand past the ear and well above the head. The hand and arm travel upward before moving forward, more than “rightward” (for right-handed throwers). This motion requires the ability to turn the torso, almost so that the player’s back is facing an opponent during a pitch or serve.

If you’ve heard the phrase, “You throw like a girl,” this refers to the fact that some children don’t develop a mature throwing motion, standing straight ahead as they throw, not turning their torso. The stereotype comes from the fact that boys are more apt to learn throwing earlier than girls because they throw more rocks, sticks and balls. Girls can develop the correct upper-body rotation just like boys, and many do. The top women tennis players today, for example, serve harder than some of the top male players of the 1970s.

Sidearm motion

A sidearm motion results in the arm traveling more to the right (for a right-handed player), but upward. A true, exaggerated sidearm is rare, and keeps the arm below the shoulder during the throw. A more common sidearm pitch, pass or serve results in the hand and arm moving upward, but more toward the right than during an overhead throw, with the arm finishing lower than during an overhand motion. If your child were to make a “Y” with her arms, that arm position is closer to a sidearm throw or serve. If your child placed her right arm straight up, forming an “I,” that’s closer to an overhand throw.

One of the disadvantage of passing a football with a sidearm motion is that the ball travels lower from the hand, making it more difficult to get the ball over opposing linemen, resulting in more batted balls. An overhand throw or serve might produce more velocity than a sidearm throw, but the fastest pitchers and servers are not necessarily the most successful. The best pitchers, passers and servers have an impressive combination of control, accuracy and lack of injuries.

Injuries

Regardless of whether your child uses an overhand or sidearm motion, the human body was not made to perform 100+ mph throws over and over again. The rotator cuff, for example, is as thin as crepe paper, and repeatedly and violently pulling it, especially at a young age, can lead to tears and strains. The elbow is another common injury area for pitchers and servers if a correction motion isn’t used or if the arm is overused.

When limiting your child’s pitch count, for example, remember that throwing snowballs, passing a football, serving a tennis ball and other activities that require throwing continue to put stress on your child’s arm.

Famed sport researcher Vic Braden performed biomechanical studies in more than 40 Olympic sports before his passing in 2014. Braden often told the story that he wanted to compare the injury rates of overhand pitchers and sidearm pitchers, but that he couldn’t conduct the study because he couldn’t find enough sidearm pitchers with industry. Braden believed the overhand motion caused an impingement of the rotator cuff on a bone in the shoulder, and recommended the sidearm motion for pitching and serving. He stated that his cadaver studies found no impingement when the sidearm motion was used.

I had the opportunity to hear Braden lecture at a tennis conference while another world-class sport researcher sat next to me. The researcher leaned over and said, “We’ve also done cadaver studies and there is no impingement.” Other researchers believe a sidearm motion might cause more injuries because of the stress placed on the arm and shoulder.

So, who do you believe? This is why it’s important to let your child try both.

Which should you choose?

The simple fact is that countless young athletes injure themselves by throwing using both motions. It might be a good idea to have your child practice throwing using both the overhand and sidearm motion to see which is the most effective and causes the least discomfort. Practice any throwing or serving motion that is new for your child at half speed, then move to three-quarter speed, before you let him try throwing or serving with a new motion at full speed.

To avoid injuries in your child, make sure she executes all of the elements of a pitch, pass or serve correctly. This means using the legs, hips and torso as the primary generators of power – not the arm. A pronounced upper-body turn will help move the arm forward more easily and relieve stress on the arm. Make sure your child learns to release or hit the ball at the proper point to avoid elbow stress. Learning to time the weight shift forward is critical. Finally, the follow-through helps the arm slow down naturally and decreases stress on the arm.

Steve Milano

Steve Milano has been writing and lecturing on youth sports for more than 25 years. He ... View Full Bio

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