I am unwillingly a pseudo-expert on the realities of post-surgery comebacks. I had four surgeries, including the Tommy John, and my knowledge of elbows and shoulders is roughly equivalent to Bernie Madoff’s knowledge of Ponzi schemes. This is a title no one hopes to hold, but is also one that allows me to impart some wisdom on players who now face what I once faced. This is much more applicable in amateur baseball today due to the increase in surgeries and the declining average age of those pitchers going under the knife.
Coming back from surgery, or serious injury for that matter, varies from pitcher to pitcher. There are, however, some common shared traits. Understanding what you are facing (as a pitcher), what you are getting (as a coach) and what you can do to help (as a parent) is crucial to coming back in the same place or better.
The mental hurdle is larger than the physical one. Pitching is a monstrous mental battle without introducing injury and recovery. During rehab from my first surgery, the physical therapist had to remind me that I was, in fact, physically healthy. As silly as it sounds, I had trusted my injured arm for so long that the healthy one felt even stranger. The faster a pitcher can realize that the doctors have done their part, the faster he will start the journey to being effective.
I have seen many pitchers that come back from surgery and dominate, and have seen an equal number of pitchers come back and flop. The truth is, no one knows what will happen. The first period of time returning to the mound (the amount of time is dependent on the level of injury, among many factors) is a crapshoot. Keeping realistic barometers in mind and understanding progress is crucial. These barometers may sound silly and simple, but they are the second step on the roadmap to long-term success.
I’ve said many times before, simplifying things is the key to succeeding, but what defines success? Simply taking the mound is step number one. Truth be told, the results, initially, are meaningless. Getting the “feel” back is more important than balls and strikes. Pitchers tend to over-think things when they return from surgery. It is to be expected when returning, but clearing the mind before throwing the pitch is important.
An equally important aspect of the comeback is to put fear out of your mind. Anyone can come back and throw a four seam fastball, but the litmus test lies in the secondary pitches. Can you turn a changeup over without easing up? Can you throw the curveball rather than just spinning it? Simple in theory, difficult in practice; but without being able to do this, a comeback will never succeed.
It is important to be realistic about the comeback itself. It will not be smooth sailing. Is pitching ever smooth sailing anyway? There will be soreness, no matter how much rehab and preparation were done beforehand. This does not mean that there is another injury or even another setback. Remember, you, as a pitcher, were sore before as well, but the difference is that it is only soreness now, not pain.
Assuming your doctor/surgeon is not just someone who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, you are healthy. Looking at results with a long-term view is a must. Are you better this month than last month, not this outing compared to the last outing? Are you reflecting and thinking through both big-picture and small-picture issues?
Parents and coaches, the role that you must play is one that involves reminding your pitchers/sons that they are healthy and being a sounding board when the inevitable issues arise. Dealing with frustration and keeping a positive attitude is as important as anything else for the parent and/or coach of a pitcher on the road back to peak condition. The status quo will have changed, but constantly reminding both yourself and your pitcher is very important. Sometimes, pitchers have lived with an injury for so long that they doubt their ability to perform with their healthy arm.
Coming back from surgery is one of the tougher things I’ve ever had to experience. That being said, it made me a better pitcher because I realized that I couldn’t just throw, that I would need to pitch. Focus on what made you successful in the first place, and you will inevitably be successful again. More importantly, you will be pain-free and truly healthy.