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Managing the Elite Athlete

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The principles of treating an elite athlete are the same as you apply to treating the non-elite athlete, the weekend warrior and the person who hurt themselves gardening.  The difference is often the time pressure to have the athlete back to sport, and the level of tolerance prior to sending for sports physician review and imaging.   At Motus Health our physiotherapists pride themselves on offering the same great level of care to all our patients.

When treating an elite athlete there are some extra considerations that a physiotherapist needs to take into account; 

Time Pressure

The elite athlete will normally be training for an upcoming event, or in the midst of a season.  This can lead to there being extra time pressure being put on the recovery of the athlete.  Although we strive to get our patients better as fast as possible, each injury has a natural healing timeframe.  We can help to maximise this process but can’t speed up time.  We ensure the athlete is doing everything they possibly can to assist the healing process and regain their function. 

This time pressure tends to lower the level of tolerance for sending the athlete for review with a sports physician or surgeon, or to gain imaging such as MRI.  This process allows a confirmed diagnosis to be achieved earlier (sometimes) which can then help to drive treatment and define return to play timeframes, allowing the athlete and the team to plan ahead. 

Modified Training

One of the key elements during any time loss due to injury for an athlete is to maintain as much fitness as possible without aggravating the injury.  As physiotherapists we assist this process discussing other options with the athlete and working in close conjunction with the coach and strength and conditioners to allow the athlete to train in a modified way.  This might include a running based athlete using a bike, swimming or aqua jogging for the period they are unable to run.  We also ensure the athlete continues any strength based work in the gym just avoiding aggravating movements for their injury.  Strength is often a key part of the athletes’ recovery so they will also complete rehabilitation exercises during their strength sessions. 

If we can keep the athlete engaged in the rehabilitation process and continuing training focussed on their sport, then we can help to minimise the time lost due to injury and smooth the athletes return to training and game.

Team Pressure

When an elite athlete is injured there is often pressure from coaches, team mates and at times the public to have athletes back to sport.    This pressure needs to be manged in the context of the athlete and their injury.  It is often not in the athletes or the teams interest to have them back prior to being fit to play due to the risk of further injury and the effect a not fully healed injury can have on the athletes performance.

Financial Pressure

For some athletes there will be monetary pressure to get back to play.  This can be in the form of a marquee player who feels they need to perform for the team, or a player who is paid per game or tournament competed in.  As a physiotherapist, these pressures do need to be considered and often discussed with the player.  There is a fine line between returning a player too soon, risking re-injury or poor performance, and withholding a player longer than necessary.  This is best managed by good communication between the athlete, the physiotherapist, and the coaching staff. 

Performance Pressure

The time of the season, round robin versus finals, the next event the athlete has on their calendar, and the risk of re-injury, are all considered when deciding on the athletes return to play.  An athlete may choose to risk re-injury to play in a final, but may take an extra week to rehabilitate during the round robin.  A team struggling to make the finals may be keen to have a marquee player back prior to them being fit for play. In the end, the athlete must first and foremost be able to complete all their sporting tasks to be considered fit to play.  It is then a risk versus reward scenario as to when the athlete does return.

Treating an elite athlete can be challenging but also very rewarding when you see them return to sport and do well.  These principles of treatment carry across to all the patients we see in the Motus Health network.  Whether your goal is to get back for the final of the 3rd grade netball season, complete a half marathon or complete a day’s gardening, we will work with you to identify your goal, set a rehabilitation plan and assist you through this.

Injured?  Need help getting back to your sport, hobby, activity.  Call your local Motus health clinic and one of our physiotherapists will help you through this process.

AUTHOR:  Brett Warman is the business manager at Motus Lincoln.  Brett has been involved with elite sports for many years, he is a current physiotherapy provider for HPSNZ and the Canterbury Men’s Hockey team physiotherapist.

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