Reducing, preventing injuries is an ongoing challenge for coach Chuck Barta

The Twins in 2022 set a team record for most injuries despite extensively resting players and recently expanding their medical staff.

Injuries and disorders in professional sports are inevitable and essential. With reasonable health this season, the Twins likely would have made the playoffs. Instead, they finished six games below .500.

You can blame the twins’ medical staff, but they have hired people who are famous in their field, including Dr. Christopher Camp, who became their Medical Director and Director of High Performance in 2020.

Chuck Barta became the athletic trainer for the Minnesota Vikings in 1988 and has been the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx since 2007. I have known and trusted him since we met in 1990.

His career predates MRI studies. We both remember when athletes thought drinking beer the night before a game was an effective way to “carb load”.

“I remember when you’d go to a pregame meal and everybody was eating steak and eggs and lots of fatty stuff,” Barta said. “Now we realize you need less fat, some protein and more carbohydrates. Now we look at micronutrients and do blood tests to see what a person really needs. Yes, things have changed quite a bit.”

Barta has faced two different challenges — working with NFL players who played 16 games over four months and WNBA stars who play year-round.

With the Vikings, Barta had anywhere from 13 to 28 players who needed surgery in a given season. Level of care was not a variable.

He found that established players had a lower incidence of serious injuries because they didn’t have to exert themselves every day to keep their jobs and they know how to manage their workload.

With Lynx, he found that players, especially overseas, determined their own health with their nutrition and rest habits.

Other points that Barta made during a long conversation:

  • Playing a sport all year round strengthens certain muscles but weakens others. Playing year-round can lead to repetitive stress injuries and can also prevent an athlete from investing time in strengthening the parts of the body required to support athletic movements.
  • Many injuries were undiagnosed or underdiagnosed before modern technologies came into play. There was a time in the 80s and early 90s when the “groin strain” became a popular description of an injury. With the introduction of tests such as MRIs and ultrasounds, trainers were able to distinguish whether the injury was actually a groin strain, or related to the abdomen.
  • In cases like the Twins’ 2022 season, injuries can lead to injuries. “If a front-line player goes down, they can be replaced by someone who is not used to playing every day, or who is trying so hard to prove themselves that they also get injured,” Barta said. “You can have a cascading effect.”
  • A player who is often injured in college is a good bet to deal with the same problems in the pros unless they change their habits.
  • Different tests show different results. An MRI can show a calf strain, while an ultrasound can reveal damaged tissue in more detail.
  • Luck can be an important factor.
  • Mental breaks can be just as important as physical breaks.
  • Modern technology, including wearable technology, can help determine how hard a player can be pushed in practice or training.

Barta pointed to Sylvia Fowles as an example of a player who extended his career through self-care. “She paid attention to the smallest details,” Barta said.

I covered Kirby Puckett, who never worked out in the winter and never went on the disabled list until he contracted glaucoma, and I’ve covered athletes who invested heavily in offseason training programs and then suffered injuries.

The challenge, as a general manager told me recently, is that modern athletes know they need to be explosive to compete, but building explosiveness is taxing on the body.

That may be why Byron Buxton — the Twins’ fastest runner and most powerful hitter, and one who works out extensively in the offseason — has suffered a series of injuries.

“Technology in our field has come a long way,” Barta said. “What has remained the same is that a lot of this comes down to how athletes handle themselves away from the team.”

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