Don't We Owe Them More?

By Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, CC-AASP – Coaching Educator – West Virginia University

The June 8, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated features an article entitled “I Want My Body Back” by George Dohrmann. It is a long overdue look at the weight and health struggles of several post collegiate DI football players. The article focuses on football, but in reality, a similar article might be written about almost any high performance sport performer at almost any level. It got me thinking about the cost of playing and why we are so willing to let athletes pay that cost.

Sport = health right? Many people assume that because athletes are active, they are in fantastic shape. Unfortunately, for a wide variety of reasons this is often not entirely true….

Many sports require athletes to push the limits of their bodies and their training beyond good health and into the precarious realm of injury and illness. Often athletes at the peak of their conditioning are at their most vulnerable to colds and over use injury. I often tell my athletes that there is a fine line between ultra fit and broken, so we need to proceed with care.

And the very nature of performance sport demands that athletes learn to ignore pain and to push on. Playing hurt is a badge of honor and courage and many take that to an extreme. Additionally, like the young football linebackers in Dohrmann’s article, many players at both the college and high school level, pack on the pounds with empty calories and large quantities of food because their sport demands size as well.

This extra bulk often exceeds what is natural, let alone healthy for their frames. This health paradox in sport means bad knees, backs, elbows and shoulders that restrict the movement of many retired athletes long before their time. Couple this with excess weight that often continues to climb post career as athletes as physical activity level declines and eating habits don’t and you have the makings of some serious problems. The intense wear and tear and size adds to the physical stress and sets athletes up for diabetes, cardiac concerns and a whole host of other health problems. It is sad to see people that once lived in such a physical world, now unable to enjoy movement and burdened with poor health, particularly when it doesn’t have to be this way.

High performance sport is intense, it is punishing, and it takes it’s toll. For many this is just the price to play. I completely understand the drive to strive for excellence and I am not suggesting that athletes back off. I wouldn’t change a thing about my competitive days even if it meant my knees wouldn’t crack or old ‘itisis’ were gone. But certainly coaches, fans, and sport itself owes athletes more than just wringing out the talent while the athletes are fresh and healthy.

Certainly we can do better to support athletes in their quest for the top, while also preparing them for the inevitable day when they hang up the jersey. Shouldn’t being an athlete mean preparation for a lifetime of being athletic? All athletes age and all athletes will carry some battle scars off the field. But it seems that much more can be done to ensure that athletes are able to continue to be active and healthy in their post team days. From Dohrmann’s article, it seems that James Harris, the Oregon Duck’s nutritionist and assistant athletic director who has been helping his players adjust to post career athletics, is providing a great example for others to follow.

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