Good timing key to healthy rehab Rush job: Time and again, athletes learn the hard way it is not wise to return too soon from injuries.

March 25, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Relief pitcher Alan Mills said it wasn't going to happen to him. He came to spring training with every intention of taking a conservative approach to recovery from shoulder surgery. No breaking pitches. No overexertion. Nothing that might set him back in the early weeks of training camp.

So why, in his first intrasquad appearance, did Mills dabble with his breaking pitches and come up sore again? Why did he step outside his rehabilitation program when there was so little to gain and so much at stake? What is it about professional athletes that makes them push past the boundaries of good sense in a sometimes self-defeating rush to recover from injury?

Those are the kind of questions that managers and trainers have been asking since Babe Ruth wore britches. "Mills had no pain . . . nothing . . . he was not even getting treatment," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "Even though I told him, 'We don't need that; get ready for Opening Day,' it was his nature. They were hitting him a little bit, and he tried to do something about it. Here's a guy who's 30 years old who should know what his limitations are and know what he's capable of doing and not do too much.

"I blame myself and Dobber [pitching coach Pat Dobson] a little bit. We should have sat on him a little more." Mills isn't one in a million on this score. He's probably in the majority. Pitchers, in particular, are prone to the kind of setback that ended Mills' hope of starting the 1996 season on the Orioles' active roster, and athletes of all types are vulnerable to the dangers of rehab overload.

Remember how Ben McDonald pitched his way back onto the disabled list after coming back too soon from arm injuries last season and in 1991? He kept telling everyone that he felt fine until his arm seemed about to fall off.

"It happens for the same reason why players are in the big leagues," said outfielder Mike Devereaux, who struggled with injuries throughout the 1993 and '94 seasons, "because you're geared toward overcoming obstacles and wanting to play baseball. You always want to be out there, and you always want to get back to where you were.

"When I was on the DL, I always felt like nothing. We live for the competition. I guess people [fool themselves] in a way, trying to prove that they feel good. They want to so much that they start to believe it."

There are a number of variations on that theme. Catcher Chris Hoiles is trying to battle back from a shoulder problem that made his life miserable in 1995, and he has managed to get this far without a serious reversal, but that may be because he understands that the age-old notion that pride goeth before the fall -- or, in this case, the setback.

"I think it's just a competitive pride thing," said Hoiles, who was on restricted duty earlier this spring to make sure he didn't reinjure the sore right shoulder that bothered him last year and is related to an arthritic condition. "It's very easy to get out there and get into a competitive gear. No. 1, you don't want to embarrass yourself, and, No. 2, you're geared toward doing whatever it takes. Sometimes, it takes something that you're not ready for, and that's when something negative can happen."

Psychological factors at work

If only there weren't so many psychological factors working in concert to make things go wrong. Competitive drive. Personal pride. Youthful hubris. They can combine to delude an athlete into believing that he will be the exception, even if all the evidence points in the other direction.

"Sometimes, you think you're different than the average individual," said outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who has been in an almost perpetual state of rehab since he arrived in the major leagues. "The doctor says it's going to be four to six weeks, so you're thinking, 'For me, that's two to three weeks.' You don't allow yourself the time you need to heal."

Many professional teams employ sports psychologists, but they work largely in the areas of concentration, stress management and motivation. Perhaps more of them would be wise to study the psychological trigger that pushes an injured athlete past the point of a timely return.

Human assessment specialist Jon Niednagel does just that. He is a researcher in the area of brain typing, which examines the connection between brain type and behavior. If he is correct that many players are predisposed toward impulsive, illogical behavior, then the ability to identify those players might make it easier to construct a successful rehabilitation program. That's one of the reasons that Orioles player development director Syd Thrift brought Niednagel to training camp this spring.

Cerebral vs. subconscious

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