Overtraining our athletes
Two years ago, I was watching Champs at home. I had grown frustrated with the mystery of the disappearing and reappearing grandstand tickets and decided watch from another venue in future. One of the most exciting attractions was a male athlete who had, in the recent past, distinguished himself in an international event.
As I watched, it was announced that he would be taking part in an unusually large number of events. I immediately sensed danger. For him to attempt so many events, he would need to have the constitution of a donkey.
As they got to the final events, I found myself standing just feet away from the television. As I expected, he crashed to the ground on the home stretch, writhing in pain. I have seen him performing this season. As far as his future is concerned - even if he wins gold medals - he will never again attain his full potential.
Two weeks ago, my attention was drawn to a report that a former Holmwood female athlete - now in an American college - was attempting 16 events at a collegiate championship. Fortunately for her, she ended up participating in only 14. This is still far too many. She 'escaped' without any immediate sign of injury.
My first word of warning is to those athletes who choose to represent American colleges. The primary objective of college coaches in the US is to win. The welfare of the athlete - particularly a foreigner - is secondary. Winning a championship could mean wealth and fame for the coach, and if a few athletes destroy themselves in the process, well ... .
News of the rewards for doing well in sports has a growing number of youngsters and coaches motivated. But they are not alone. Parents are now taking an interest and are insisting on some brutal schedules, with visions of calls from Nike, and living vicariously through their children's success.
Overtraining occurs when one's training load is greater than one's recovery capacity. It is important to make an early distinction between overtraining and over-reaching. This is when an athlete is undergoing hard training, but with adequate recovery.
I am impressed and at the same time concerned at the impressive times accomplished by younger and younger athletes each year. Concerned because this suggests that they are being required to specialise at a very young age.
time to heal
It is not advisable to sacrifice overall fitness for sport-specific strength, particularly at ages before the body is fully developed. They should be encouraged to compete in several sports throughout the year. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends giving children an additional two to three months off per year from a particular sport, as this will allow the body to heal and recharge the mind. The academy claims that children who play multiple sports have fewer injuries and continue to play longer and at higher levels than children who specialise in one sport before puberty.
This may be a good time to warn parents who decide to 'assist' in the coaching of their children. Coaching requires training and a good understanding of how the body works. Improper technique can put unsafe torque and pressure on tendons, bones and joints. It would be advisable to have the child pay regular visits to a paediatrician.
And what about bodybuilding? Years ago, I observed a young athlete and saw him as the natural successor to Bolt. I shook his hand a few months after he left school and was struck by how thin he was. I later observed him along with several other athletes in a gym and was stunned at the amount of weights they were using. He became the athlete that was reputed to be most dedicated to his training.
About two years ago, he made an appearance at the stadium and the word on everyone's lips was the great shape he was in. He had muscles in places I did not know he had. Weeks later, he crashed to the ground, writhing in pain about the same distance from the tape as that young high-school athlete mentioned earlier. He is just recovering - physically.
It is possible to develop musculature more than what is optimal for the body. I would have encouraged him to develop his musculature to its peak operating efficiency and not to its maximum potential.
Track and field athletics is the only activity in this country that is the source of genuine pride, producing tangible rewards for the athletes and their families. Everywhere, I see the temptation to overtrain. We must not get carried away by our enthusiasm.
Overtraining our young athletes, especially in one sport, can cause injury and seriously and permanently compromise that child's performance and long-term health.