With all of the advancements finally being made on player development, it’s important to note that development in its maximal capacity is only possible with maximal arm health (and body health in general). While a lot goes into arm health specifically, I believe that workload management, or a lack thereof, is one of the primary causes of arm injuries in pitchers. Simply monitoring how much and when an athlete is throwing, both over time and in the present, can significantly decrease risk. Spikes in throwing load or a significant decrease in throwing load can be detrimental to throwing athletes.
I am a big believer in training, to an extent, for a specific goal. If I want to be a reliever who can throw every day, I need to prepare my body to throw every day. If I want to be a starting pitcher who is available to extend once or a couple of times per week, my body and arm need to be prepared for this. With that being said, simply becoming a better athlete is extremely important as well. But for the purposes of this article, I will stick to mainly ideas relating to the arm individually (although I realize its not exactly individual in its action/performance). With MotusBaseball sensors, I have found success, and learned a ton in managing workloads on a more individual basis.
This is something that I can deeply relate to, as I began making my biggest gains (weight room, velo, etc.) as a college freshman and then continued into my sophomore year. However, just as I was at my best as a sophomore, I had my first shoulder injury and my first surgery. None of this was at the fault of any coach or anything specifically in the past. I simply hadn’t paid enough attention to what I was doing workload-wise. I didn’t know any better. With that being said, could this have been prevented completely? I don’t know. But it certainly could have decreased my risk.
WHAT is workload management?
Workload management entails specifically designing and adjusting throwing programs to create a gradual and safe increase in workload overtime, and ultimately the maintaining of a safe workload.
A few important terms to be familiar with are chronic workload, acute workload, and acute:chronic workload ratio. Chronic workload includes your overall accrued workload over an extended period of time (28+ days). Acute workload includes an immediate and recent workload (7 days or one day workload). The important metric to pay most attention to is the Acute: Chronic Ratio (ACR). This is the comparison of a pitcher’s acute workload to their chronic workload. Motus designates that this number should be between .7-1.3. All this means in simple terms is that acute and chronic workload should be similar over time (roughly a 1:1 ratio). Higher than 1.3 would be an unsafe spike and lower would risk an eventual unsafe spike if not monitored correctly. Every single day this is not possible, as there are higher and lower intent days and volume will change daily. Looking at this from both a daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly point of view can be valuable. It is important to understand athletes individually, as not all throwing is created equally. Cookie cutter programs rarely work, and adjustments have to be made on an individual basis. Athletes have a workload capacity, based largely on what programming, or lack thereof, has built them to be able to sustain. It is imperative to build a strong foundation and to maintain and work within this foundation over time and in the present.
WHY does workload management matter?
In the past, throwing injuries have been linked to a number of different causes. Many of these involve throwing too much, or throwing too little. Pitch counts have become popular at younger ages and are even being tracked more and more at older ages. However, in my opinion any pitch count (to an extent), can be trained for. However, that is only possible if it is tracked and gradually built up to. While there are limits to this idea, my point is simply that not all arms are prepared for 100 pitches on any given day. It is something that you have to work towards, and work towards gradually.
Now, in saying that, I believe that this is widely understood by most coaches. However, I don’t believe that it is truly tracked or paid attention too, other than asking an athlete how they feel. Getting an athletes feedback is extremely important, so a coach should never stop having those conversations. I do believe those conversations should lead to more though. For example, a lot of times, younger athletes will throw no more than a couple times a week, and then go out and throw 100+ pitches on a weekend start and play short stop the other 2-4+ games that same weekend. At the end of the weekend, with all of the warm up throws, in between inning throws, in game throws including the game that they pitch, a young athlete has thrown 500 throws. (This might be exaggerating slightly). BUT the point is that nobody truly has a clue how many throws this young athlete just made and they were likely in no way prepared physically, or mentally for that matter, for this workload. And the issue is that the athlete, at least at a young age, has no idea the toll this might have just taken on their body. The soreness goes away in a day or two max and the weekend is forgotten about. And then it happened all over again the next weekend, with again, 1-2 practices/throwing days during the week. This has now become an acute issue, that turns into a chronic issue. So, when the athlete is injured and has surgery as a college freshman or sophomore, as I did, there is no specific incident to point to as the problem. Both acute and chronic throwing patterns were inherently poor. There were constant spikes in workload every playing day or weekend, and not a strong enough foundation built through chronic workload build up. It is neither the player, parent, or coaches fault for this necessarily. They were simply just uninformed. It is our job to inform everybody involved on the matter. Those who do have at least some knowledge, have to share it.
Over time, workload management becomes a habit, for good or bad. Youth players get in the swing of playing tournaments nearly every weekend, high school players are typically 2-way guys who pitch one game a week and play a position the other, and college players go to practice daily and pitch when they’re called upon. Not to mention all of which are busy with school and possible outside jobs as well. It’s not their fault. There is a lot going on and if we, as coaches want them to be prepared and have a plan weekly, the athletes have to understand what the plan should entail and why. Health has to be prioritized and the role that workload management plays in health has to be taught.
The bottom line is that better health means more opportunities to both develop and pitch quality innings over a career. At the end of the day this is what everybody wants for athletes. We, collectively, have to find a way to make this happen.
HOW to go about managing workload:
The easiest way to monitor workload management, that I am aware of, is by using Motus. The numbers are there and updated daily. At this point it's simply monitoring, programming, and keeping an eye out for red flags and adjusting accordingly. However, it’s understandable that this isn’t affordable for everybody. As individuals, I would strongly encourage investing in Motus, if at all possible. For teams however, and many individuals as well, its just not affordable. There are plenty of other ways to go about monitoring workload and its tax on the body. One thing that is extremely necessary, is identifying goals. As an athlete, its important to know what you are working towards. From there, every athlete and coach needs to be aware of their scheduling.
For youth athletes, understanding a summer schedule of both when games are and when practices will be is important. This will help gauge when the higher intent days will be. Once this is realized, simply mapping out a plan for every other day, is a good starting point. Gradually increase the volume of throws that are taxed onto the arm, so that you are prepared game #1. With that being said, it s also important to be on the same page as a coaching staff, as far as monitoring in game throws, both on the mound and at a position. Kids should be able to play every position they want to, but not at the risk of harming their future. Simply put, take care of yourself. Throwing programs become habit, and instilling good habits into athletes at a younger age will be very valuable as they get older.
For high school athletes, the same can be said for summer baseball, as it is typically very similar to youth baseball as far as tournaments. The only difference being showcases likely mixed in. (The idea of training vs. playing/showcasing is topic for another conversation). However, once the fall begins and a high school coach is involved, programming is heavily dependent upon on the coaching staff.
This is where college baseball and high school baseball become very similar. Be smart about programming. In a team setting, programming HAS TO be individualized as much as possible. One way to start programming is with an assessment. Find out where players are and what they need to work on. (Again, topic for another conversation). In this assessment, I think it is necessary to include some sort of questionnaire or survey to find out where a player is at relating to workload; how much they have thrown over the past year and weekly workload habits. With this information, a coach can at least have some familiarity with an athletes past workload. From there, a coach should program accordingly. If an athlete is not ready for higher intent of higher volume, don’t put them in these environments. In most cases, it is much better to play it safe than to push an athlete over their workload capacity and risk injury. Regardless of where exactly an athlete is, some sort of on ramp needs to happen if this is your first time working with the athlete after an extended period of time. Never assume anything about an athlete. Work with them towards a common goal.
In conclusion, simply pay attention to what an athlete is doing and consider why. There should be a reason for any and all training. There are many ways to work within a capacity. Workload plays a heavy role, in many aspects, with injury risk and injury prevention. As coaches, managing workload gives us a chance to demand the most out of a player and to maximize growth and development. A healthy athlete is a better athlete.