Brothers in Arms
According to a study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, when looking at youth baseball pitchers alone, between 26% and 35% will experience elbow or shoulder pain each year.
That was certainly the case for Daniel Harper. Like millions of kids, Daniel started playing baseball when his parents signed him up for T-ball. Through grade school, he continued to play baseball anywhere and everywhere the coach could use him—catcher, pitcher, outfield.
But by his sophomore year at Bishop Miege High School, he began having problems throwing with his right arm. “My velocity dropped from 93 mph to 80 to 83 mph and I couldn’t throw a ball past 90 feet without bouncing it,” Daniel said.
At 15 years old, Daniel thought he couldn’t possibly have injured his arm, but he was wrong. An MRI revealed he had a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery to repair it.
After surgery, Daniel started an extensive rehabilitation program with Jason Yoder, DPT, a sports physical therapist with the Children’s Mercy Kansas City Sports Medicine Center.
Jason worked with Daniel for nearly a year, helping him recover the strength and mobility in his right arm. “We progressed from light forearm strengthening to being able to do a 90-lb. row on a cable machine within five to six months. It was amazing!” Daniel said.
And though he had to sit his junior season out due to the injury, he was back in full force for his senior year of high school, pitching at 93 mph again, and securing a scholarship to play college baseball for the University of Kentucky.
During his freshman year playing for Kentucky, Daniel thought he “tweaked” his right hip. Though it kept bothering him, he continued to play ball through the first three years of his college career.
But when COVID hit, he decided to have his hip checked out. This time he learned he had a torn labrum, a misshaped hip bone, and there was no cartilage left to protect the joint. So, in August 2020, Daniel had surgery to repair his hip, returning to Jason again for rehab.
“Rehabilitating my hip was much harder than my elbow,” Daniel admitted. “I was non-weight bearing for eight weeks on crutches. That really slowed me down, and I lost some muscle mass,” he said.
But Jason used his expertise and the equipment available at the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Center at Village West to help this college pitcher get back on the mound.
“We used the pool and blood flow restriction therapy to get my hip moving again. Those were game changers,” Daniel said. Because of COVID, Daniel was able to continue his rehabilitation throughout the fall 2020 semester in Kansas City, returning to in-person classes, practices and games for the spring 2021 semester.
As he prepares for his fifth and final year on the mound for the University of Kentucky, Daniel said he’s ready to leave everything on the field, hoping to secure a contract to play professional ball following graduation.
“After rehabbing from two surgeries over the past six years, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jason’s help,” Daniel said.
“Without a doubt, he’s the best sports physical therapist in the Kansas City area, but more important than that, I feel like rehab brought me a new friend that I will have forever. That’s the coolest part. We’ve maintained our relationship over the past six years,” Daniel said. “He was the first person I called when I found out I needed hip surgery.”
As Daniel reflects on how far he’s taken his college baseball career, he gives Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine and Jason much of the credit. “They took a scared and timid 15-year-old kid and gave him the opportunity to succeed. That’s the best thing about all of this.
“Through the rehab, I’ve become more confident in everything I do. Facing two physical challenges like this and getting through them makes you realize that nothing can get in your way.”
Three “Brothers in Arms”
Though Jason was Daniel’s therapist, he’s just one of three physical therapists with the Sports Medicine Center who specialize in working with players, from little league all the way through college. Zachary Gove, DPT, and Andrew Melanson, DPT, are his other “brothers in arms.”
The three not only have the training and expertise to help student-athletes rehab from overhead injuries and other surgeries, they’ve “been there, done that.”
All three started playing baseball at a young age, and played at the college level, helping them relate to their young patients’ injuries, goals and baseball dreams.
Jason Yoder, DPT, Operations Manager, Sports Medicine Center at Village West
Growing up in Indiana, Jason started his baseball career with T-ball, playing baseball through grade school, high school and then in college. On the field, Jason’s home was the pitcher’s mound, where he honed his skills and realized he could play at a higher level.
“I didn’t specialize in baseball until later in my career,” Jason said. “I played basketball, football, swam and ran cross country. Baseball didn’t necessarily come easily for me. I had to work hard at it.”
Jason’s hard work paid off. After high school, he decided to attend college at the University of Indianapolis, a Division II school where he was a walk-on. Unfortunately, during a fall game, he was hit in the ankle by a line drive, breaking a bone in his leg.
“I was never able to trust my leg again and struggled with performance after sustaining that injury,” Jason said. “But I went through several months of rehab. That’s what got me interested in pursuing a career in physical therapy.”
Jason focused on his education, completing his Doctor of Physical Therapy at the University of Indianapolis, Krannert School of Physical Therapy. He has more than a decade of experience in orthopedics and sports medicine at Children’s Mercy, building a loyal patient base. Now a significant portion of his cases involve helping athletes rehab from overhead injuries.
“Having played baseball, I understand what my patients are going through, and being able to establish that rapport is huge,” he said. “But as a physical therapist, I take a wholistic approach to the overhead athlete, looking at the entire kinetic chain. Even though a student-athlete may have elbow or shoulder pain, the problem often originates somewhere else, so we look at how that athlete is moving and prescribe a rehab program just for that player.”
Jason and the entire Sports Medicine team often work with the area’s pitching, strength and conditioning coaches, helping players become stronger, more well-rounded athletes. His goal is to help them not only rehab from an injury, but to return to the game in better shape than ever.
“At the Sports Medicine Center, we bridge that gap from rehab to actually pitching in a game and we do a really good job not just of getting these athletes back to baseline, but ready to perform,” Jason added. “That’s what it’s all about.”
With plenty of space at Village West, Jason can get players back into real-life scenarios to be sure they’re ready to return to play. “I play catch with my patients and we put their arms to the test. That’s how we get positive outcomes and tangible results.”
And because the results have been so good, word of mouth has spread about the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Center.
“Most of my patients are in high school, but we work with college-level and pro players as well. We have the ability to follow and manage these athletes through their college and early pro careers because of our knowledge and expertise,” Jason added.
Zach Gove, DPT, Sports Physical Therapist, Children’s Mercy Blue Valley
Zach said he’s played baseball longer than he remembers. “T-ball turned into kid-pitch and I just kept on playing,” he said.
As a member of the Olathe East High School baseball team, he also specialized in pitching and playing infield. After high school, he pitched for two years at Johnson County Community College.
He then transferred to Emporia State where he played three more years, finishing out his collegiate career before earning his Doctor of Physical Therapy from Rockhurst University. Today, he still loves the game. “I play slow pitch softball in a local league just to stay in shape and have some fun,” he said.
Though Zach made it through his high school career without injury, all those pitches eventually caught up with him his freshman year at Johnson County Community College, and again his junior year at Emporia State.
“I didn’t have the best throwing mechanics and did not properly take care of my body. I ended up developing terrible elbow pain when I threw. I had some bone chips and spurs in my elbow that needed to be cleaned up,” he explained.
“I went through several months of rehab and training after two surgeries before I was able to get back on the mound. If I had known then what I know now, it might have saved me a couple of surgeries.”
But those experiences also helped Zach have a better understanding of the throwing mechanics necessary to reduce injury, an important lesson he shares with his patients.
“With tournaments and year-round ball, many of these kids end up throwing more than they should, leading to a variety of arm problems, a common one being growth plate injuries referred to as little league elbow or shoulder,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for younger athletes to see a pediatric-trained specialist who’s aware of and knows how to properly treat them with rest and rehab to avoid further growth-plate injuries.
“As a former pitcher and student of the game, I can help patients find flaws in their throwing mechanics that could have led to their injury,” Zach said. “I have experienced what their practices are like and what the yearly grind is like. I can take them to the next level, working on strength and conditioning, and help educate them to avoid injury in the future.”
In fact, Zach is certified in strength and conditioning by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He also is certified in functional dry needling.
Dry needling involves a small, solid microfilament needle which is inserted into a trigger point by a trained physical therapist, such as Zach. A trigger point is a tight spot within the muscle tissue that develops due to injury, overuse or dysfunction.
Dry needling can decrease pain, reduce muscle tension and improve range of motion, allowing the therapist to target issues that cannot be felt manually.
“Dry needling can be effective at treating players experiencing muscular pain throughout the body. A common site I will needle for throwers is the rotator cuff,” Zach added.
In addition to the staff’s expertise, Zach said the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Center also has the space and equipment so patients can practice drills and actually throw, helping them move beyond physical therapy to get back in the game.
“We excel at helping our patients become more well-rounded athletes, and that pays off in the long run,” Zach added.
Andrew Melanson, DPT, Sports Physical Therapist, Children’s Mercy Blue Valley
Growing up in Blue Springs, Andrew followed his older brother into baseball, playing on the T-ball, little league, traveling, American Legion and high school teams. When it came time for college, he played ball one year for Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kan., then transferred to the University of Central Missouri.
Named to Missouri’s high school all-state team three times, he played first and third bases. “I had the good fortune to play with a number of guys who were a lot better than I was,” Andrew said. “Some of them went on to play in college, the minor and major leagues. I still love baseball, and today, my kids are playing.”
Though Andrew never had surgery, he did have some shoulder pain as a middle-schooler and worked with a physical therapist. But his older brother suffered a football injury to his shoulder, making a big impression on Andrew. “Watching my brother struggle to recover from his shoulder injury got me interested in physical therapy.”
Andrew earned his Doctor of Physical Therapy from Rockhurst University. He was fortunate enough to do his last clinical rotation at Children’s Mercy, where he’s worked ever since. Like Zach, he’s certified in strength and conditioning by the NSCA and in dry needling.
He’s also focused on making sure the overhead injury athletes he works with don’t just meet their strength and mobility requirements, but exceed them.
“Knowing how to play the game helps me dig in deeper and understand how the patient’s injury occurred and what they’re trying to get back to,” Andrew said. “We’re able to write a detailed throwing plan for each athlete. Based on the position they play, we can take them through a step-by-step process for throwing, educating them in injury prevention and proper form.”
Plus, Andrew tries to bring perspective to his patients. “Sitting out a couple of weeks and letting that arm heal and rest will go a lot farther in the long run than getting back out there,” Andrew said. “If a patient truly loves the game, let’s not hurt it when they’re 13 or 14. There’s nothing worse than going to a showcase or the next tryout, and playing at 50%, when they could have taken a short break and shown up at 100%.
“We know their arm is going to be moving at a rapid pace in a stressful environment when these patients leave us, so that’s what we try to replicate in the clinic setting,” Andrew said. “We do a lot of drills and take the athletes through hands-on progression to be sure their form is correct and they’re ready to play ball.”
Ultimately, Jason, Zach and Andrew know from personal experience that each level of play gets more difficult as players climb the ranks.
“Whether a student-athlete is playing to get a scholarship to help pay for an education, or they want to play in the majors,” Andrew said, “we’re here to provide everything we can to help them achieve their goals and dreams, no matter what level of ball they play.”