The Cost Of Being A High-Level Athlete

Every choice we make comes with a cost. Every decision we make results in an outcome. I can choose to watch Netflix until 3 am, or I can choose to go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep. I think the consequences of both those decisions are obvious, but do we ever analyze even the most mundane of choices? Do we ever weigh the impact of even the smallest decisions and calculate what kind of consequences ensues? Parents are often told the benefits of training and sport, but this post will cover the flip side of the coin that most coaches don’t share with you.

Consequences can be both good and bad. I had a friend tell me once that every choice creates an outcome, and how you make decisions is based on what consequence you can live with.

That got me thinking, so much so that I’ve started to look at the consequences, both good and bad, in the world of performance and training. 

 Looks can be deceiving. I think we often look at athletes no matter the level and assume they are the pinnacle of health. They must be, right? They sure look the part and the abilities they have are so great that they often get paid just because they can do physical feats better than you and me. But what about the consequences? Health and performance are not as synonymous as you might think.

 

 

In an attempt to be great at anything, something has to give. The saying goes that success is a lonely endeavor. Most people who reach the top in business, writing, music, sports, often do so alone. Think of the divorced CEO who has no relationship with his family, or the musician who travels on tour with no real permanent community. Life is a Rolodex of choices and sacrifices and performance is no exception.

Positives & Negatives in All Things

When it comes to maxing out performance, I now ask myself what is this going to do for this person long term. I think a lot of coaches forget that what we do in training facilities has lifelong effects. This is a hard thing to balance because as stated before, elite performance isn’t healthy. You are trying to take the human body to places it’s not designed to go. How many times have you heard of a marathon runner pealing over after a race dead due to heart complications? What about the Superbowl champion who later committed suicide due to CTE/traumatic brain injury? External health is not always indicative of internal health. 

 Knowing that forces us to make decisions with more than just the here and now in mind.

How strong is strong enough?

Getting somebody strong is important. Working in the world of youth athletics, it’s almost always the priority of any novice or beginner trainee. Often times just getting an athlete stronger can completely transform how an athlete plays. The effects of getting stronger have multiple benefits both physical and mental.

 People love strength because it’s easy to measure. Can you lift more this week than you did last week? Boom. You’re stronger. Good work. 

The progress feels good. You feel accomplished, you feel better about yourself, and now all of a sudden your both strong AND confident. That’s a beautiful thing and one of the reasons I love my job, but what I never learned in undergrad was that strength comes at a cost. 

 The stronger an individual gets, the more compression you invite into their body. If you think about that from a purely logical perspective, you don’t often associate compression with fluid and relaxed movement (something all-pro athletes do sensationally well). Picture an elephant vs a cheetah. Arguably the strongest and fastest mammals on the planet with two totally different movement profiles. The elephant sacrifices the speed and ability to change directions quickly due to its massive size and accompanying compression. The cheetah on the other hand has virtually no movement limitations but sacrifices the ability to run over trees and trample lions. 

 

Strength Training often comes at the cost of sacrificing range of motion
With the right interventions, and a personalized approach, we can undo the negative effects and start recapture movement almost instantly

Performance is a tug of war, a give and take. All athletic qualities have a point of diminishing return, but it can be a necessary evil to give up one thing, in order to max out the other. The only way to know how much of each quality you need is to do a proper assessment and need’s analysis of the athlete in front of you.

NEEDS ANALYSIS

If you’re an offensive lineman, you need to be strong. I would argue that it would be the priority in most cases. Their job is to move others while simultaneously trying not to get moved. That requires a tremendous amount of compression to create stiffness, which allows you to produce force (be strong), as well as hold your ground against resistance. This is ideal for their specific task, but get them in the open field and they are completely useless against their smaller, faster, more agile opponents. 

 To contrast that with speed, you see a different quality with a different cost to benefit consequence. The 100m race is said to be the event that showcases the fastest humans on the planet. Moving at top speeds of up to 27mph (Olympic level), these top speeds are something we all watch with jaw-dropping amazement. 

 Speed is king, but it doesn’t come without paying a hefty ransom. With speed, comes a higher rate of soft tissue injuries of the upper and lower leg. When you move at top speeds, your body is producing forces up to 5-7x’s your body weight with each stride and up to 4 strides per second. It’s no surprise then with these kinds of forces and repeated exposures via practice/competitions that these speed-dominant athletes almost inevitably run into issues during their career. 

If you are attempting to do anything at a high level, it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when.

The role of the strength coach then is to build resiliency to injury, mitigate the likelihood of getting hurt, and weigh the long-term consequences of training. The ultimate goal is to provide adaptability. 

Adaptability and Movement Options

Adaptability simply gives you options. Injuries happen more often than not from lack of movement options. A baseball pitcher hurts their elbow from throwing with an insufficient movement of the shoulder. A soccer player constantly battles tight groin muscles from locked-up hips and quads. Basketball players constantly roll ankles due to a host of issues upstream at the knees and hips. All these youth athletes see different injuries but the root of the problem is all the same. 

 They lack movement options.

 When an athlete lacks movement options at one joint, another joint picks up the slack and compensates to the best of it’s ability. These athletes tend to drill the same movements, at the same practices, at the same games year-round with no exposure to anything else. The consequence then becomes 2 fold:

  1.  Overuse injuries
  2. Injuries resulting from lack of movement exposure

Smart training offers adaptability. Sometimes the athlete’s needs are different from the athlete’s wants. Any decent coach can develop strength, speed, and power. It takes a true professional to weigh the long-term effects and of these coveted athlete qualities and provide a balance of variability throughout a long-term program.

Conclusion

Is your athlete getting the personalized attention they need? This isn’t gym class anymore. A group workout is NOT the way, and throwing something up on a screen or whiteboard is not training, it’s laziness and borderline negligence. The science is clear, and we are starting to see the negative side effects from poor training catch up with current and former athletes now more than ever before. Every day I see clients who deals with pain and this pain is a by-product of lack of education and lazy coaches/teachers. 

 This cannot continue. Our athletes deserve better, and their future health depends on it. Before you join that big gym or sign up for that weight training class at school, weigh the consequences. Are you getting a program, or are you getting the group workout? Does the coach know what you need, or do they just want to get you strong as possible with no consideration for your athletic performance or long-term health? Does the coach understand the consequences, both good and bad, of training over the long haul? The ball is in your court. What consequence will you choose to live with?

God Bless,

Thomas Bowes

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