Athletes are in better shape than ever these days, so it’s reasonable to conclude that they’re also more durable. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
It doesn’t matter the sport, injury lists seem to go in only one direction-- up. Nobody I know of keeps statistical track of those things, so I can’t prove it, but every season, in every league, the main question isn’t who’s best but who will be healthy at season’s end, when the big games are played. Pre-season forecasts, more abundant than ever, also are more idiotic.
The situation seems most dire in baseball, the latest season of which is just underway. Pitchers in particular have been affected—it seems that they’re lined up around the block to have Tommy John surgery, the elbow-ligament-replacement operation named for the much-traveled left hander on whom it was first performed in 1974. Rare is the Major League pitching staff that doesn’t have a member who has undergone—or is undergoing-- the procedure, which usually involves a full season on the sidelines. Some pitchers have had it more than once.
Basketball has no single counterpart to the elbow-ligament plague but its stars are also have been faring poorly, so much so that injury reports challenge its box scores for sports-page space. My blog of January 15, headlined “Gone Fishin’”, speculated that the long National Basketball Association season had prompted some players to feign or magnify injuries to get occasional breathers. The league must have gotten wind of such talk because it’s been discussing making schedule changes.
Football long has been a petri dish of afflictions, some of which, involving the brain, have scary, long-term implications, and while here’s no doubt that better conditioning protects players from some ills it may contribute to others. The bigger-faster-stronger syndrome of which the National Football League is proud also makes for bigger, louder and more-frightening collisions on the gridirons, the implications of which are easy to imagine.
Of the improved general fitness of athletes there can be no doubt. Our knowledge of exercise physiology and nutrition have improved vastly in recent decades, as have the devices to implement it. Of at least equal importance is that the torrent of money that has flowed into sports has meant that the pros no longer need off-season jobs to make ends meet and can afford to be in training around the calendar and around the clock. The results have been apparent to the naked eye, so to speak: walk into any Major League Baseball locker room these days and you’ll see guys who look good in their underwear. Thirty years ago ballplayers were a mixed lot in that respect, looking pretty much like any other group of men their age.
As any competent trainer can tell you, however, top-level fitness is a double-edged sword. With nothing much else to do except watch cartoons on TV, some athletes will train to excess, crossing the invisible line that separates fitness and breakdowns. The “no pain, no gain” mantra that permeates some weight rooms is a dangerous one, most experts now say. “Quit when you’ve got one more in ya’” is a better one, they agree.
More dangerous still is the very-early commitment to single sports that pushy parents are pressing on their talented offspring. Time was (remember?) when kids pretty much played in-season pickup games with their playground pals, never getting uniforms or trained coaching until high school. Little League accelerated that process in baseball, but its schedules—like those of Babe Ruth or American Legion ball for teens-- rarely exceeded 30 games a year, and ended before Labor Day.
Now there are “traveling” youth leagues in several sports, including baseball, basketball and soccer, which for annual fees of up to several thousand dollars provide coaching, training and competition for children as young as age eight; in baseball these circuits book as many as a 100 games a year in Sunbelt locales. The leagues have cut deeply into Little League baseball participation and are supplanting the high schools as the main recruiting grounds for college basketball. Except for the live-in part, they mirror the practice-and-play-intensive private “academies” that have been stocking the pro-tennis ranks for years.
That sort of commitment requires kids to specialize in a sport from their pre-teens, leading to repetitive-stress injuries such as the carpal-tunnel syndrome that befalls people who spend long hours on computer keyboards. The condition that requires Tommy John surgery is one of these; the more pitches one throws the more likely it is to develop, studies show.
Worry over pitchers’ arm overuse has changed baseball radically. While the likes of Robin Roberts, Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins once cranked out 300-inning seasons, any pitcher today who logs 200 innings is considered a workhorse. Teams’ starting rotations used to number four; now they’re at five and in spring training the New York Yankees were talking about going to six. Pitch counts dictate managers’ mound tactics as much as opponents’ hits.
Such moves haven’t stemmed the injury tide and probably won’t. Young athletes today are better physical specimens than those of the past, but having played more games and pumped more iron they also show up in the big leagues carrying much more mileage.
Interestingly, a golfer—Tiger Woods—might be the best illustrator of the “too much, too soon” development. Under the tutelage of his father, Earl, he began swinging a golf club while still in diapers, and was playing tournaments by 10. No one ever appeared on the pro tour more ready to win, and no one achieved as much as quickly.
But while his lost mojo, resulting from his exposure as a serial adulterer, played a role in Tiger’s decline, so has a multifaceted physical breakdown. He won his last “major” at age 32 and now, at 38—prime time for some golfers-- is eternally recovering from one injury or another. Old timers like Snead, Hogan and Nicklaus weren’t as good at 21 as Tiger was, but they lasted longer.