The date was March 8, 1965. After careful consideration, the United States finally decided to make a manpower commitment to the growing escalation in Vietnam. Over the past decade, tensions between the North and South Vietnam – as distinguished by the demilitarized “17th Parallel” zone – had grown into guerrilla warfare. Fearing a communist takeover, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration decided to deploy 3,500 United States Marines to Da Nang, South Vietnam. It was the first of 2.6 million troops that would serve in what we know today as The Vietnam War.
Once Allies in World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union had become engaged in a geopolitical power struggle in the late 1940s. The Soviet Union had set up puppet regimes in territory acquired during the course of World War II – Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia, Ili Rebellion (China). These states all fell under communist influence post WWII. Germany – one of the three main Axis powers – was divided into two separate states after the Allies victory. East Germany became a communist state, while West Germany was backed by the United Nations as a non-communist state. Other post-Axis power territories – most notably Korea and Vietnam – followed a similar pattern. The spoils from the war weren’t just given to the victors. They were divided amongst the victors, which ultimately created a new conflict that would last for over 40 years.
We know it today as The Cold War.
Our paranoia over the spread of communism started long before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 speech in Wheeling, WV; where he claimed several U.S. Congress members had pledged allegiance to the Communist party. The “First Red Scare” started in the late 1910s – just prior to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Due to events real – 1917 Russian Revolution and 1919 Anarchist Bombings – and imagined, Americans were lead to believe a communist infiltration would become our downfall. While the scare eventually subsided, McCarthy’s accusations in the early 1950s rekindled the fire. The timing of his claims was perfect.
The year was 1947. Just a few short years after an Allies victory in World War II, the United States found itself in the beginnings of a new conflict. Greece – a once annexed Axis power – was in the midst of a power vacuum between communist and non-communist ideology. This struggle escalated to Civil War in 1943. When Britain withdrew its support from the conflict, U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed the Truman Doctrine – completely shifting U.S. policy on diplomatic matters. The doctrine was designed to prevent the geopolitical spread of Soviet Union influence throughout Europe and Asia. Its first task was to help Greece fight back against the Communist Party of Greece. While they eventually prevailed, it was only the start of a much larger battle.
If we knew today what we didn’t know back then, we could have saved hundreds and thousands of lives from the conflicts that ensued.
The origins of conflict in Vietnam dated prior to the Truman Doctrine. Between 1946 and 1954, the communist-backed Viet Minh battled against French union forces in a nationwide power struggle – eventually drawing opposing U.S. and Soviet involvement. It is recognized as The First Indochina War. In July 1954, the International Geneva Conference recognized the end of the conflict by establishing a geopolitical divide at the 17th parallel. The north would be governed by the Viet Minh, while the south was to be governed as a republic under separate leadership. After French military withdrawal in 1954, the United States assumed financial and military support for South Vietnam. Recognition of the divide, however, was not respected by either side.
Shortly after the Geneva Conference, North Vietnam built up a supporting communist influence in South Vietnam. They were recognized as the Viet Cong – a communist-backed organization based in neighboring territories Laos and Cambodia. In November 1955 – with support from China and Soviet Union – an attack was mounted against the Republic of South Vietnam. The conflict that ensued lasted nearly 20 years. It is known as the Second Indochina War – or, as we commonly know it, the Vietnam War. United States involvement started as an advisory, eventually escalating to boots on ground in March of 1965. It would continue until the conclusion of the conflict in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country.
It is, to this day, one of the most infamous conflicts in U.S. military history.
The other day, I was working on the training floor with a pitcher. Not too long ago, this young man had underwent Tommy John (TJ) surgery on his throwing elbow. He was having a tough time rehabbing from the injury, which brought him to our facility.
During his first few weeks of training, you could start to see why his rehab process wasn’t going the way he had hoped. His delivery still had residue from some of the problems that got him hurt in the first place. While coming back from injury is a tough thing, we felt we could get him moving differently to alleviate some of the discomfort he was having in his elbow.
One of the areas this young man struggled was his rotational sequencing. When he pitched, he would compensate and create a ton of lateral trunk tilt to his glove side – putting the elbow in a vulnerable position. Instead of working around the body, the arm vaulted and traveled in a linear pattern towards his target. This exposed his elbow to shear forces it was not capable of handing. As a result, we had to get him to think more “side arm” to eliminate this excessive trunk tilt and alleviate the stress his elbow was subsequently forced to handle. It was working, but it wasn’t quite sticking. Every day it seemed like I had to regurgitate the same message.
So I decided to switch the message up.
I started by taking a video and giving him a visual aid for what he was currently doing. He loved seeing videos of what he was doing, so I wanted to use this to my advantage. I pointed out the issues he was having consistently, but I decided to do a better job relating it back to the main issue he was having: Elbow pain. Instead of just telling him what to do, I explained how his current movement solutions had consequences on his elbow. I told him that whenever he yanked his head to his glove side, he was putting a lot of stress on his throwing elbow. Thinking sidearm wasn’t just a party trick. It was a strategy designed to eliminate his nagging elbow discomfort. Once he put this together, he made some of the best throws I’ve ever seen him make. It was, in his words, the best throwing adjustment he had made since coming off TJ surgery.
Here’s the catch: I didn’t give him anything new. I just simply connected the dots in his brain so he could understand why this specific adjustment was so important. This started by tapping into the fear of hurting his elbow again. He already had everything he needed. He just needed the urgency to act in a way that would change his throwing pattern and reduce the risk of getting hurt again. Logic doesn’t drive most of our behavior. Emotion does. There isn’t a stronger one that exists than the emotion of fear.
History – as seen with our infamous involvement in Vietnam – only confirms this.
Our decisions during the Cold War were not rooted in reason. They were illogical. Our desire for global influence caused us to create an enemy that didn’t even exist: A global scale communist takeover. The political witch hunt McCarthy ignited in Congress was an influence tactic to gain votes in an election year – and we were stupid enough to believe him. The Truman Doctrine only served as legislation that legitimized our actions overseas – which never should have escalated to boots on the ground. Our urgency to action during The Cold War was not rooted in logic, but in emotion. The fear of a communist takeover within the United States was not a real threat, but it didn’t stop us from making people think it was a real threat.
It goes much further than politics.
Our fear or fear has never been more prevalent in the game of baseball. Just look at our on-going battle with arm injuries. It’s no secret more guys are getting hurt, so what do we do? We make fear-based decisions: Pitch counts, shut down periods, no upper body lifting, no curveballs until car keys. We tell kids how throwing is an unnatural motion and how they need to limit the amount they throw to avoid “overuse” injuries. We explain the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) should theoretically tear with every single pitch we make. We justify our actions by using the line: “If you do x, you’ll get hurt.” It is in these interactions our relationship to injury becomes more sinister. We’re not training to get better. We’re training to survive – and we are destined to fail. My boss – Randy Sullivan, founder Florida Baseball ARMory – says it best: “No one wants a program that helps you get better but gets you hurt, but no one also wants a program that doesn’t get you hurt but doesn’t get you better.”
My question is this: When did we start thinking we couldn’t do both?
The message I want to share to coaches is two fold.
For one, risk averse training does not eliminate risk. We’ll never be able to take the risk out of performance training. There are things we can do to minimize it, but of these do not include pitch counts, shut down periods, or telling pitchers they can’t lift upper body. If we want to push the limits of human performance, we cannot wade in shallow waters. We must venture in the deep end. These moments are not reckless actions, but the result of calibrated coaching over a period of time. We will risk doing too much because we’ll never know it’s too much until it is. But – to be honest – I think the risk of doing not enough is much worse. Just look at the list of Japanese pitchers who got hurt after their workload was cut in half in the states. Our attempts to do less have not solved the problem – which makes me wonder why we commonly default to less when injury becomes a concern.
The second part of my message demands integrity. As a sector, we have to clean up the messaging when it comes to how we market arm pain. Opening up a cadaver and showing a 14 year old kid how “easy” it is to tear the UCL in half is not a great way to make kids more diligent with their arm care. It’s a great way to make them afraid of ever picking up a baseball again. The thing we’ve become fearful of has become more common, which unfortunately means we’ll see more “coaches” continue to leverage their brands by picking apart “injury prone mechanics” through still shots and slow motion video. Throwing the injury label on kids who do not fit your mechanical model is not coaching. It’s reductionism: We ignore the rest of the variables in favor of the one we can market best.
Paranoia over arm injuries has never been higher. The last thing kids need to hear is all of the reasons why they’re going to get hurt. We think we know a lot about injury, but the reality is we all suffer from Dunning-Kruger. Some guys can last years – even careers – with bad patterns. Plenty of our “mechanical models” for optimal movement compensate like hell. As a result, we have to be really careful when we marry mechanics to performance and pain. It’s a part of it, but it’s not all of it. If we think it’s all of it, it’s all we’re going to focus on – and it’s only a matter of time before our model will need an adjustment. Performance is multi-faceted: Nutrition, hydration, sleep, and external stress all play as much of a role as mechanics when it comes to optimizing or performance. They’re just not quite as marketable as forearm flyout.
If history teaches us anything, it is this: When it comes to human behavior, there is no greater motivator than fear. It will influence more bad decisions than good ones – as history shows us. Our fear of communism cost us over 55,000 American lives in Vietnam and many others in other Cold War proxy-wars. Our fear of arm injuries in baseball will not cost us lives, but careers – unless we can finally learn from our mistakes. The best way to mitigate fear is to eliminate the power it has over the decisions you make.
Coach – and market – accordingly and responsibly.