04 February, 2016

Treating Athletes like Performance Cars

Treating Athletes like Performance Cars

Photo Credit: Freewheeling Daredevil

Imagine if athletes were cars racing around a racetrack, where lap times are a performance indicator and the athlete is one with the car. There is a racing team manger and coach giving driving instructions, mechanics, technicians and other specialists (strength and conditioning coach, physiotherapist) in the pits providing support and information, but the driver has to listen.

All of a sudden a warning light (pain) comes on in the dashboard. The driver sees it, but ignores it. One of the technicians sees it on his computer, but can’t do anything about it while the car is racing around the track. Soon the car will come in for a pitstop, change of tires (new shirt) and a bit of fuel (water).

The driver (athlete) has a choice:

  • To listen to their technician and take the car (athlete) off the track to address the issue.
  • Or ignore the warning light (pain) at the risk of not finishing the race.

What would you do as a driver (athlete) or manager of the team (coach)?

This is a scenario that is played out in sport around the World. As coaches we make judgment calls about our athletes and evaluate the information presented to us. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. Those who get it wrong are often the ones who don’t understand their cars and how they actually work.

This is why I have taken a lot of time over the last 12 months to understand the car (the body) so I can provide better advice and keep my athletes on the track for better performances. This blog covers one of the big learning’s I have made!

The Joint by Joint Approach

As coaches, we are taught a lot about muscles. Building muscles, increasing flexibility within our muscles, not straining muscles. But very little education is given around the role our joints play in our ability to move. Our bodies are a stack of joints with muscles and tendons, ligaments and other connective tissues joining it together to enable movement.

I too, until recently had only a surface understanding of the importance of our joints in the overall performance implications for athletes. Thanks to

Greg Dea, a Performance Physiotherapist and mentor to me, taught me what what I am going to share with you. I was blown away not only by the simplicity of the concept, but also the depth that it explained relationships within our body. So be prepared to have your mind blown too!

We all know that as we age our joints ‘stiffen’ as our mobility is decreased. Even right now as I write this, I know that my hips are stiff because I have been sitting for too long this morning in a meeting (I’m now at my stand up desk which I love!)

I am seeing (on my Facebook feed at least!) a lot more pages crop up that are focused around increasing mobility. Whether it is a gymnastics approach, strength based or yoga. But what they all have in common is an understanding of how the body works, joint by joint.

Some Definitions

Mobility is how much motion you have through a joint.

Stability is how well you can control that movement.

Movement is the combination of these two - control of mobility

The joint by joint approach starts at the feet.

  • The big toe needs to be mobile
  • The midfoot needs to be stable
  • The ankle needs to be mobile
  • The knee needs to be stable
  • The hips need to be mobile
  • The pelvis and lumbar spine (lower back)– Stable
  • Thoracic spine (upper back) – Mobile
  • Cervical spine (neck) – Stable
  • Scapula/Thoracic Joint (shoulder blade on the ribcage) – Stable
  • Shoulder joint – Mobile
  • Elbow – Stable
  • Wrist – Mobile
  • Hand – Stable

Treating Athletes like Performance Cars

Now, all joints need some degree of mobility and some degree of stiffness/stability/control of movement, but the tendency with joints is to alternate between the two ends of the spectrum. 

So do you see the pattern? A mobile joint is followed by a stable joint alternating up the body. This is why there is now a research-based approach to train movement patterns rather than specific muscles. So doing a squat is favoured over doing a hamstring curl. But being able to train a movement pattern, relies on the parts (in this case the joints) that make up that pattern, being able to do their job.

Some Examples

Lets say the hips are not as mobile as they should be (like mine). I can’t squat to full depth with a great pattern. So if I force it past where my hip mobility stops, then my body finds mobility up or down the chain, being my lower back or knees. But the lower back is built for stability, not mobility – the result - lower back pain or knee pain.

What about if the ankle lacks mobility. Say after a bad sprain and a clear return to sport approach hasn’t been followed, mobility hasn’t been regained and the athlete starts running again. No pain is felt initially in the ankle, but the mobility in the ankle isn’t there to support the running mechanics. Over time – knee issues.

The ankle is a shock absorber. When we jump, which sport has a lot of, we land. We need to absorb that force through the ankle with mobility, the knee needs to remain stable. What if there is a lack of mobility in the ankle and an ability to provide that shock absorption? Where is the pain going to result? The knee.

Most commonly in sport we see a loss of mobility in joints that should be mobile. Therefore we see joints that should be stable, become unstable (i.e. trying to find mobility). The body will always compensate and try to find that mobility further up or down the chain. This will result in pain. Long term exposure to pain, which is the bodies warning light, will lead to injury.

The Coach's Role

As coaches, we are looking for our athletes to have incremental increases in their performance. Performance is underpinned by patterns in movement. These patterns are made up of parts.

So as shown above, where there are parts (joints) that are not mobile or stable, then the patterns are affected. This in turn will affect the performance of the athletes.

As coaches of young athletes or senior athletes it is important to understand this joint-by-joint approach. As a coach, you should be looking for broken patterns, as broken patterns means a weakness that needs fixing.

As a coach, it is your responsibility to pull that athlete to one side to evaluate the broken pattern and either find the faulty part or refer on to an expert to fix. By allowing the athlete to continue to drive with a warning light of pain or a broken pattern is irresponsible. It will result in a broken athlete with an injury.

The joint by joint approach was developed by Gray Cook and Michael Boyle. Gray is a World renowned physical therapist and Michael is a master strength and conditioning coach.

Special thanks to Greg Dea for explaining these concepts to me and helping me understand. Greg is a World class Performance Physiotherapist and has recently returned from working with the Chinese Olympic Committee as a Physio to the World Cup winning Women’s Volleyball Team. 

© 2019 Paul Mead