"Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work though difficult problems."
- Gever Tulley
How is the Athlete Different?
Both the athlete and the non-athlete possess the same basic underlying stimulus and response physiology, so what is the fundamental difference that sets the athlete aside? The strength of a training or therapeutic stimulus dictates the robustness of the physiological response.
In the therapeutic and/or training context, we can reasonably expect a certain magnitude of healing or anabolic response in return for a specifically chosen and applied therapeutic or training stimulus. Response magnitudes are contingent on many physical and/or physiological stimulus variables including:
Magnitude and/or intensity of physical or physiological loading
Extent or duration of loading
Specificity of loading
The physiological health of the Athlete
These variables are the means by which we can control the quality and quantity of a stimulus in either a training or therapeutic setting. Greater magnitudes or volumes require a more robust reparative response, and therefore need to be applied with caution, and onto a competent, experienced body. This applies to the developed athlete, and or the systematically progressed therapy patient. Greater demands carry with them the potential benefit of greater adaptations, but also increase the risk of injury and lack of supercompensation. The athlete’s response ability is an acquired, trained skill that improves with training experience. This happens on a cellular, DNA, hormonal and also on a more macroscopic tissue level. A prepared target tissue is more capable of meeting and responding to a demand placed upon it. The non-athlete will not have the equivalent, developed robust reparative response as the athlete, and therefore needs to be slowly progressed to the degree their competency allows. This progression, however, draws from and uses the same principles of physical and/or physiological overload utilized with athletic training. The otherwise healthy, non-athlete has the same responsiveness hard wired into their DNA, however it has not been nurtured and developed. Therefore, the expression that ‘there is an athlete in all of us’ is essentially true, however, the degree to which one can increase their physical and physiological ceiling may be pre-determined and encoded in their genetic fibers.
Because the survival of all biological organisms is dependent on ‘stimulus and response’ dynamics, the same principles of overload can be applied to athletes and non-athletes alike. However, the capacity to which the athlete is able to respond is greater and multi-factorial. Darwinism holds it that we are the sum of our genetic experience, constantly adapting to demands of our environment by encoding a response into our genetic blueprint. Training implies a healthy, competent body. If this is not the case, then loading and stimulus variables should be more reflective of therapeutic interventions. With competence comes the ability to increase the strength, volume and technical nature of training.
Failure to develop an athlete on a sound, competent platform has been addressed as dysfunctional training by many. Therapy and training are very similar, yet training most definitely does not equate to therapy, and vice versa for that matter. An athlete’s body is perpetually in a dynamic state of damage, growth and repair. The athlete’s training and therapeutic programs need to respect and reflect where the athlete is in this process. As a by product of a well designed and implemented training program, as previously noted, the athlete may develop a more robust reparative ability. However, at times, due to the sum of stressors within an athlete’s life, their reparative abilities can become compromised and insufficient. Coupled with the continued physical and physiological demands of training and competition, the athlete may ‘de-train’ their reparative ability, and may negatively affect their supercompensation ability. This can lead to signs and symptoms that may place the athlete on a spectrum of poor health and non-responsiveness to training; a spectrum that can culminate in a condition called Overtraining syndrome, which essentially represents an inability to positively adapt to applied stimuli. In addition to the hours and hours of a high intensity training load, athletes from youth to masters to elite and professional, also have the burden of the normal every day life demands that can add to their total systemic stress load. All stressors onto the body can be considered stimuli, some positive, and some negative, depending on the response to the stimuli. When the stimulus volume is too high, danger lurks, performance declines, physical and emotional health suffers. Conversely, when the stimulus volume is too low, or if the stimuli lack specificity, the athlete's response pattern is not sufficiently challenged, resulting in inadequate or sub-optimal adaptation.
What are these life stressors? We all know them: family, responsibilities, money, career, sleep disturbance, nutritional concerns, careers….and time! Athletes have other concerns as well, depending on their level of play. Past injuries, improper rehabilitation, travel, contracts, unpredictable sleep and nutrition, money, playing time, current phase of training, supplemental training time, media, testing, career goals and aspirations, team relationships and dynamics, geographic moves/re-locations, etc.