Wednesday May 13th, 2015

I have yet to meet the injured athlete who expected to be injured.

Everyone—pro, high-school kid, or average guy working out in the gym—has the same reaction: I can’t believe it. I worked so hard.

My question: Did you just work hard, or did you also work smart?

Not the same thing.

Hard work is good. But smart work is on a whole different level. When you work hard, you’re just working. When you work smart, you’re working hard on the right things, for specific results. 

And no matter what sport you play, no matter at what level you play it, one of those results is not being injured.

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A couple months ago in this space, I wrote about the epidemic of injuries in the NBA, and why it’s surprising there aren’t more: Kids play the same sport in multiple leagues from an early age, wearing down their growing bodies before they reach adulthood, without the right kind of training or sufficient recovery time to manage the physical effects. In many cases, by the time they get to the pros, injury is predictable if not inevitable.

Now we’re seeing the same thing in baseball: There are currently more than 40 major league pitchers recovering from Tommy John or other arm surgeries, in addition to more than 50 pitchers on the DL with various strains, tears, and inflammations. You can point to many of the same causes: Too many innings for too many years, kids throwing for power without developing arm strength to support the motion. Even with mandatory pitch counts, rest days, and inning restrictions, you still have kids playing in multiple leagues with conflicting rules that allow for all kinds of loopholes. And contribute to all kinds of injuries.

You can sum up all the explanations in just a few words: Hard work is not always smart work.

For a pitcher, if most of your time is spent working on the skill of throwing a ball, with less time spent on developing the physical strength to support that skill, you’re not working smart. You can work on your form and technique and strategy and everything that goes into becoming a great pitcher. But unless you build the right machinery under that great-looking hood, you’re a Rolls Royce with a Yugo engine. All style, no performance.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb (pictured) will undergo Tommy John Surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow, ending his season. Cobb was slated to be Tampa Bay's Opening Day starter in spring training before injuring the elbow.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb (pictured) will undergo Tommy John Surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow, ending his season. Cobb was slated to be Tampa Bay's Opening Day starter in spring training before injuring the elbow.
David Maxwell/Getty Images

When you train for looks, you’re just training hard. When you train for performance, that’s training smart. Just because you look good when you take your shirt off doesn’t make you a great athlete, and it doesn’t give you performance skills. It just means you look good with your shirt off.

"Everyone wants to work on the glamour muscles that get the credit for throwing a ball: shoulders, biceps, triceps,” says Dr. Andy Masis, Director of Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation for ATTACK Athletics, and one of the finest physical therapists I’ve ever worked with. But if you ignore the surrounding muscles that support the arm—the scapula behind the shoulder blade, the back, the entire core, all the muscles that take the stress off the shoulder itself, you have no stability. And without stability, you cannot have mobility."

Think about constructing a door. It can be built from the strongest, most exquisite materials imaginable, but without a quality frame or durable hinges, it’s just a big useless slab. If the frame is weak or crooked, the door collapses. If the hinges aren’t attached correctly, the door can’t open or close. And what happens when you force a stuck door to move? It usually breaks. Meanwhile, what gets all the attention? The handle: the hardware equivalent of the glamour muscles. All the focus goes to what you can see on the outside, but without correct construction on the inside, your expensive handle is just a hunk of junk.

Ultimately, the way you build that door has everything to do with your chances of avoiding injury and achieving longevity. If you use quality parts, if you build  and connect them properly, maintain them correctly, now you have stability and mobility. You cannot effectively have one without the other.

Here’s an example of working hard but not necessarily smart. Every year or so, athletes discover a new way to work out, and everyone rushes to it. Pilates, yoga, miracle diets, balance balls, core work—they’ve all been around forever but suddenly they become the hot program, to the exclusion of everything else. So now you have guys with rock solid cores, but weak ankles or elbows. You have athletes stretching and bending in all directions, but now they’re overly flexible for their sport, and they’ve increased their risk of a dislocation. A pitcher who develops a stronger core will have more torque and velocity, but unless you’re also conditioning the rest of the body to absorb the increased explosiveness, at the very least you’re going to strain something. More likely, you’re going to become a Tommy John statistic.

If you really want to know how a pro athlete took care of himself during his career, take a look at him after his career. The way he moves, how he walks, if he can stand up straight. Forget about whether he’s put on a few pounds or lost some skill; we’re talking about how his body structure survived years of athletic wear and tear, injuries, surgeries, rehabs. 

The guys who can move well and still look like they can play a bit, those are the ones who understood that you can’t just work on the parts that are injured or weak; those are the guys who worked smart. The body is a physical chain; everything is connected. When one link in the chain is damaged or weakened, the next link takes on some of the stress. Over time it takes on more and more stress, until it weakens as well, and eventually the damage spreads all the way down the chain. So what began as a knee injury often becomes a hip problem or an ankle issue or back trouble.  

True for all of us, not just pro athletes: If you don’t protect the entire chain, if you return from an injury without building the muscle and connective tissue necessary to support and stabilize the entire body—not just the injured area—you’re probably going to get hurt again. And frequently the new injury will be to a different area. Now they call you “injury-prone” and wonder why you can’t stay healthy.

Without proper maintenance, you can’t sustain performance. Look at it this way: If you’re building a high-performance automobile, you’ll need a lot of separate parts to maintain it properly, to keep it finely tuned and balanced. Some parts make it stop, go, move forward, backwards, absorb shock, etc. But if just one part is out of alignment or worn out, it’s going to cause other parts to break down or malfunction…usually the parts you can’t see.

You notice this a lot late in the season, as athletes try to stay healthy for the long haul. They’re sore, banged up, tired—the last thing they want to do is work out. They built up a baseline of strength during the off-season, lifting weights, moving the iron. But unless they continue training to overload those muscles during the season, the strength baseline decreases, and now those muscles begin to break down as the workload increases. And the longer the season goes on, the more they break down. You can bring in the world’s best specialists, physical therapists, acupuncturists, masseuses, you can do the foam rolling and stim and ultrasound and muscle activation…but all of that has to be in addition to your strength work, not a replacement for it.

Bottom line: If your preparation involves more time on a table than on your feet, you’re not training smart. You play on your feet, you train on your feet. That’s training smart.

Tim S. Grover is the CEO of ATTACK Athletics, world-renowned for his work with championship and Hall of Fame athletes including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and hundreds more. An international authority on mental and physical excellence, he is a keynote speaker for corporations and sports organizations, and is the best-selling author of Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable and Jump Attack. Follow Tim @ATTACKATHLETICS on Twitter and IG, and visit www.attackathletics.com for more.

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