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History suggests players training on their own is problematic

Due to the lockout, players are on their own this offseason with regards to rehab and training. History suggests that’s a problem.

Baseball - Yankees vs. Red Sox Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

As you likely know, during a lockout, MLB players aren’t allowed to have contact with their team’s physical therapists or training staff. If you find this to be problematic, you’re not alone, as I voiced my concerns here this past Saturday.

However, prior to my article last week, Lindsey Adler of The Athletic wrote a piece that mentioned in part, that the Yankees organization was proactive in communicating offseason plans to players prior to the lockout, implying that the implementation of said programs may not be a concern. (I also received reader feedback that echoed that sentiment.) I’ve never enjoyed being the bearer of bad news, but unfortunately, today I have to be that bearer. We should still be concerned, even if the Yankees were diligent in handing out training instructions to players. The training and physical rehabilitation plan of “Give the player his program and send him on his way,” is disconcerting on numerous fronts.

To be clear, that’s not a judgment or criticism of the players. The overwhelming majority of players possess a very high degree of self-discipline and commitment – it’s unlikely they’d be in the big leagues if they didn’t. The problem is that successful program implementation is far more likely with a set of professional eyes present who can evaluate and make necessary adjustments to the plan as the player progresses (or hopefully far less often, regresses) both in the moment and long term.

As I mentioned in Saturday’s article, there are innumerable variables in programming, and physical therapists and trainers essentially make educated guesses when writing programs, as there is no “right way” or “wrong way” set in stone. The value that a good PT or trainer brings is the ability to observe the player when the player is implementing the program, and to modify it accordingly. For example, a player rehabbing from ankle surgery may shift his weight slightly to one side when squatting – this may indicate that even though there’s no more ankle pain, the ankle still may not be functioning 100 percent correctly (which may necessitate a slight change in the program).

Also, when dealing specifically with players coming off of injuries, a PT or trainer with any sense of self-preservation will 100 percent err on the side of safety and caution when prescribing programs and specific exercises. (If they don’t, and a player is re-injured due to a program or exercise that was too challenging, it won’t be the player getting a pink slip.) Although the right decision, this often leads to movements that may not be challenging enough for the player. This isn’t a problem – if the PT or trainer is present to observe and make an appropriate progression on the spot.

You may be thinking in that scenario, a player would know “yeah, I got this, I’m going to need to do something a little more advanced or challenging.” Again, I’m going to be a downer and say maybe, maybe not. Quite often, especially as fatigue sets in or the mental desire to “do two more” kicks in (i.e., when ego takes over) the person performing a movement sacrifices correct posture and form in order to finish. Far more often than not, this is done without the exerciser even knowing they’re doing it.

When that player says “Yeah, that was too simple, too easy, there wasn’t enough weight, etc.” a good trainer or PT can say, “Not so fast – the posture and form weren’t great there” and point out specifics, before saying “Let’s make sure we improve that before progressing, otherwise, we’re just risking further injury.” This is a crucial aspect of training and PT that, again, can only take place if the PT or trainer is present. Even in the event that the player and PT agree it’s time to progress and make things more challenging, the PT is more qualified than the player to decide how to do so, as it’s usually far more complicated than “just add more weight.”

Of course, most players are far from being on their own. Adler noted in her article that, unlike in 2020, “players will have easier access to private facilities and gyms, many of which were shut down” at the time. This may or may not be a good thing. A former colleague of mine was the offseason trainer “back home” for an MLB player a few seasons ago. The player provided his trainer with a binder of the workouts his team wanted him to do – his homework essentially. It was my colleague’s job to implement that program and make the observations mentioned above.

In this case, it worked well because my colleague was experienced, knowledgeable, and most importantly, professional. He may have thought this program isn’t exactly what the player needs, but the team is writing the player’s checks, so we’re doing what they say. Some players may have a trainer who disagrees with the team’s plan and institutes their own. Many of these trainers are longtime friends of the player, and the player may trust this person more than the team rep he just met this season and go along with his offseason trainer’s plan instead. At the very least, mixed messages can create trust issues. (Of course, there’s no need to waste space discussing the “back home” offseason trainers who have the players jumping on tires in a parking lot, but we know they’re out there.)

If at this point you feel I’m being too pessimistic, let’s take a look at the last time players were given a program and had to implement it unsupervised. Here are the numbers of trips to the injured list over the past four years, league-wide. Of important note, I removed all IL visits due to “internal injuries” which Covid IL visits fall under, but don’t compromise all “internal injuries.” The numbers below are based on tissue and joint injuries only.

IL Visits

Season IL Visits
Season IL Visits
2018 692
2019 692
2020 1,223
2021 969

*2020 numbers are prorated to 162 games

No, that’s not a misprint. After subtracting “internal injuries” there was exactly the same number of IL visits in 2018 and 2019, and then they rose 77 percent in 2020 – the season when players were more or less on their own before the season started.

I say “more or less” because there is a distinction to be made. In Adler’s article, she noted “One small silver lining of 2020’s COVID-19 shutdown was that the Yankees (and, presumably other clubs) had to manage player training programs remotely, giving them some experience before this year’s lockout.” In other words, prior to the 2020 season, when team staff and players were allowed to communicate via video, phone, email to exchange feedback, the results were still an abject disaster. Currently, players don’t even have those advantages of getting coaching, feedback, and input that the 2020 players had.

A key factor here is the length of the lockout, which we obviously we don’t know yet. If it’s short-term, then this isn’t likely to be a big issue. However, if it drags on throughout the winter – and all signs are pointing in that direction – it could be more problematic from a player health standpoint than most realize. We can take up another day the question of why, if you owned an MLB team, you would be so unnecessarily careless with the health of very valuable employees. Regardless, it’s absolutely not an issue to dismiss or to be blasé about.