Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Competitor shelf-life?

There are many ways to quantify health these days. There are even more neat ways to quantify high level performance. Some professionals have created very specialized metrics or algorithms that will give you a number that taken by itself provides you a baseline from which to measure physical improvement or deterioration. All of these tools are valuable but are truly best used when other such measures are also considered.

In our work we continue to come across a disturbing trend that gives the impression of a timed physical depreciation. If you watch any amount of sports news you've certainly heard of the "aging running back" who's career is over at 30 years of age. Maybe it was the last summer Olympics where you saw the gymnast who would retire after the games at the ripe ol' age of 22. Your own baseball career might have been cut short by an injury or you might have had a long and prosperous one competing well into your 40's! These ages, while varied between activities, are very commonly used benchmarks when gauging the "usefulness" of a competitor, to use a very General Manager/Owner-esque term.

Now, think of a world where a running back could remain effective at 35 or 40 years of age. Or that gymnast or swimmer competing on the world stage well into their 30's. Is this fantasy? Not possible, right? Well, here are a couple thoughts that will stimulate more conversation.

1. Who's on your team?
I'm not a fan of many racing sports. Those who know me understand my love for motorcycles, but this analogy is best explained from the pits of a NASCAR race.
These cars possess the latest technology, the fastest, lightest and "safest" (that depends on which race fan you ask) of everything. Yet, without the pit crew working diligently before raceday and then constantly checking in on that functioning unit, the car would NEVER finish a race. NOT ONE. The car would certainly face a catastrophic failure along some portion of that day without the care of the pit crew. The issue here is simple: the closer the car operates to maximum levels, the more likely the instance where a failure will occur.

This concept is well understood in athletics and so I will not belabor the point but to mention this: Even if you're not a track and field fan, we've all seen the 100M sprint hundreds of times. Every one of us can recall the runner who suddenly begins the fastest limp you've ever seen and that look on their face when they realize they've had a catastrophic failure.

Much attention is paid to professional athletes and to some higher level amateur athletes.  However, for a few reasons, which we won't get into here, many of them are slow to put together their pit crew. The 'why' is varied and complex. The solution is information. When we speak to our performance-minded clients, we need to be able to relay the above message. Once our athletes, young and old, first or 15th round picks, understand that they can increase their performance, limit injuries and extend their shelf-life the buy-in is tremendous. In this way we elevate the game of the athlete as well as the game of real performance physical therapy. We are only now taking advantage of the wealth of information we can provide that others cannot.

Not only this, but who better to be the pit crew Chief than a PT? The true musculoskeletal experts. Orthopedic surgeons are certainly an important crew member. Their ability to put back into order that which has failed is widely respected. Athletic trainers possess many skills that are essential for high level performance. However, the PT with an intimate knowledge of biomechanics and a keen eye for movement patterning is the main client-professional interface. Performance PTs live in the crossover between dysfunction and performance.

2. What does it take?
Balance. Symmetry. Control. Strength. Power. Flexibility.
I'm not speaking about concepts that are foreign to any of our readers. What I am aiming to do is to reiterate the idea that ALL of these concepts need to be constantly evaluated and optimized for maximal performance with minimal risk for failure. We often tell clients that we'd rather see them in once per month and competing than see them at all on our treatment tables. The 'new' PT believes this to be true. Do you believe it? Unfortunately, many clinics aren't set up this way. A global change must happen. It might be initially bad for business but in the long run the gains are worth it.

Level of competition aside, the idea that there is a finite amount of time that you can spend at a high level is a prevalent one. In recent stimulating conversations with my colleagues, we are uncovering some recurring themes that we hope to one day re-frame. For now we will do our best to find dysfunction BEFORE it has an effect on complex and powerful movements. We will treat people and not just body parts. We, the new performance PTs, will blaze the trail. We work each day to elevate the game and ask the help of our colleagues to do the same.