Elite Competition May Actually Be Harming Our Athletes. Let’s Do Something About It.

By Dan Hellman

Football season ended with a shocking NCAA national championship game and a ho-hum Super Bowl. March Madness is around the corner, and we all enjoy the drama and spectacle that our athletes give us. We debate the idea of compensation for elite college athletes, but is that us to overlook the possibility that the very way we conduct competitive sports may be unhealthful for the player? Maybe.

At the end of the NCAA football season, I couldn’t help thinking about the tragic event that marked its beginning: the needless death of 19-year old University of Maryland lineman Jordan McNair, the inevitable the dismissal of Coach D.J. Durkin and the early retirement of the university’s chancellor. The season resumed and ended in dramatic fashion. But what did we learn?

Is money encouraging unnecessary risks?

It is high time to examine whether we, as a society, are encouraging our young elite athletes to take unnecessary risks with their health.

Tales of Durkin’s sadistic approach to training may provide the most egregious example of how we can harm our young people in the name of sports training. But there are other examples, both subtle and prominent, all over the country and at every level of sport. 

Money is a huge factor in creating pressures that lead to abuse and unhealthy behaviors. In its report on McNair’s death commissioned by the University of Maryland, the consulting firm Walters, Inc., singled out “increased exposure from social and public media [and] external pressures created by the influx of monies being secured by sports” as factors of concern for American universities.

Coaches are paid millions of dollars to run programs that, in turn, bring in many more millions in direct revenues, plus increased brand value and more student applications. Those factors create their own pressures, and these inevitably fall on student athletes. 

Intense competition can lead to over-training.

An elite 19-year old athlete in otherwise good health should not collapse on the practice field and die. Each death or injury has its own unique set of causes, but we know from experience that competition, money and a frenetic modern lifestyle are taking a terrible toll on our athletes.

Elite sports are so competitive that athletes feel pressure to constantly prove themselves. One injury could end any hope of a career that someone has trained their entire life to build. It could also mean an end to important financial support for the family, not to mention the dashed hopes of a family that may have put years of effort and money into a child’s athletic future.   

Today’s athletes over-train. In fact, they are often encouraged—or pressured—to over-train by their coaches, or even their parents. 

These athletes are competitors, and they naturally believe that if they are not training, some opponent or rival is. So it is up to the elders in their lives—coaches, trainers, teachers and parents—to keep them alert to the risks they are taking, and to help them adopt the practices they need to stay healthy.

Athletes need rest, proper diet and relief from intense travel.

As we work out or play sports, we create compression throughout the body. But athletes typically finish their workout or game and move on. They spend very little time regenerating and supporting their bodies, sleeping at night, managing stress, and eating the kinds of foods that build healthy tissue. That has to create a breakdown and make athletes more susceptible to the rash of injuries we are seeing. 

Next year, football players at NCAA Division I FBS schools will play at least 12 games between August and December. Basketball teams will play more than 30 games between November and March even before league and NCAA tournaments begin. The athletes will criss-cross the country, disrupting their bodies’ circadian rhythms and adding significant stress to the normal pressures of academics, athletic performance, personal relationships and the process of maturing as young adults. 

Some of these athletes will get plenty of the protein they need at training tables, but are they always eating the right foods, avoiding processed foods and eating as much fresh and organic products as possible?  Are their coaches making certain that they are not putting on unhealthy weight—that is, weight that their joints and organs were not made to support and which can put them at greater risk for injury? 

Even a young, fit body can’t take unlimited punishment and neglect.

Consider also the younger elite athletes who play on traveling squads from their early teens, often playing their sports year ‘round with no time off to rest their bodies from the repeated motions their sports require and no access to training tables. As we extend each sport’s season and reduce recovery time, we increase the risks to our athletes.

Athletes can get away with ignoring the needs of their bodies for a time because they are young and strong. But as we are finding out, no body, no matter how healthy, can take unlimited punishment.It is time to ask whether we have allowed the pressure to compete, make money, generate alumni enthusiasm and elevate a school’s brand to overwhelm something more important: our responsibility to care for these young athletes and teach them not just how to be strong, or tough, or faster or more agile, but how to be all that and healthy, too.

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