'Practitioner Health' - Making Practice in Elite Sport Sustainable

In the spheres of performance science much attention is paid to 'athlete health'. It has become widely recognised that lifestyle factors are critical, not only mediating performance and training adaption, but also impacting upon injury and illness. Despite such growing awareness, until very recently the notion of coach or practitioner health has not been widely considered in the same way. For the first time, important discussions on the topics of coach and practitioner health are being held more widely. For instance, coach health in the field of strength and conditioning was recently featured on the very popular Pacey Performance Podcast. These discussions have raised important issues in relation to the unique challenges presently faced by practitioners operating in the information age. In addition to exploring these issues in more depth in this post, more importantly we will examine strategies and tools to help negotiate these challenges, and ultimately find a way of working that is sustainable in the long term.

THE SINK OR SWIM EXISTENCE OF THE ASPIRING PRACTITIONER...

A recent survey conducted by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association highlighted the plight of a large proportion of its members. This report made for very uncomfortable reading for those in the strength and conditioning profession. In particular, these findings drew attention to some stark realities and the struggles faced by a huge number of those seeking gainful employment in the field.

To a large extent these struggles stem from the over-saturated nature of the job market in the performance sciences and the field of strength and conditioning in particular. The reality is that the opportunities for paid work in elite and professional sport are very few.

Academic institutions in the UK particularly must take a huge chunk of the blame for continually fuelling this over-supply in the face of such limited demand. Yet the interest among school-leavers in pursuing sports sciences, and the prospect of a career in strength and conditioning in particular, remains undiminished. Whatever the moral arguments, in the face of such a ready source of revenue, universities and colleges will inevitably continue to offer increasing numbers of degree programmes, churning out more and more graduates into an already over-saturated pool.

Such unfavourable odds are not the only challenge faced by those starting out. The capricious nature of recruitment in professional sport and 'high performance' organisations such as national institutes of sport is another reality faced by those who aspire to work in sport. It is an unlovely fact of life that in many instances the recruitment process for athlete support positions (if a process is followed at all) is very far from being a meritocracy.

CHALLENGES FOR ALL PRACTITIONERS IN SPORT...

We should note here that such challenges are not unique to the field of physical preparation. For instance, those who work in sports physiotherapy and associated therapy professions in professional sport are commonly expected to work long hours and often seven-day weeks, with little respite for much of the year. Sports coaches involved with different sports likewise face huge challenges in simply making an income from coaching, particularly in the case of 'amateur sports', such as track and field athletics, where being a volunteer coach is considered somehow 'noble'.

Therefore coaches and all practitioners working in sport face two fundamental challenges. The first is making working in sport viable as a way of making a living. In turn, the second challenge is finding a way to make this work practically in a manner that is sustainable in the long term. It is this second challenge that we will attempt to tackle here.

PRESSURES FACED BY THE FORTUNATE FEW...

Against this background the pressures faced by those fortunate enough to secure gainful employment in the field are considerable. Having managed to climb the 'greasy pole' and secured a much coveted paid position, the practitioner must then turn their attention to staying atop this perch. The perceived threat of losing out on such an opportunity to one of the masses below eagerly waiting any slip is very real.

One might argue that it is good thing that those who secure a paid position cannot lapse or become complacent. However, adopting such a defensive mindset that is essentially driven by perceived threats to their position is not a healthy way of working.

On another recent podcast Derek Hansen made a compelling argument that the major driver for the practices among strength coaches employed in college sport and the professional ranks is in fact fear. More specifically, many strength coaches are essentially adopting the methods, equipment, and practices that their competitors are using simply because they fear the consequences of not being seen to do so. Clearly @@fear is not a healthy source of motivation@@; certainly it is not conducive to a growth mindset.

REAL AND IMAGINED PRESSURES FROM PEERS AND COLLEAGUES...

Those working in professional sport, or indeed employed in any capacity in sport, will be familiar with the perceived pressure to be seen to be present. It is often viewed as a badge of honour for ambitious young practitioners particularly to be seen to be first in every morning and last to leave the facility each night.

Whilst they might be motivated by laudable intentions, such misguided demonstrations of commitment to the cause are often ultimately detrimental to the individual. In particular, investing such an amount of time each day in simply 'being at work' will inevitably be to the detriment of the individual's life and relationships outside work. 

Aside from the hardships and unfavourable odds faced by those starting out, the dangers of burning out for those who do secure employment have recently been brought to the fore. Notable figures in the field, including Brett Bartholomew have spoken on the topic and introduced the concept of 'coach health' to a wider audience. Others such as Jorge Carvajal have highlighted the need to consider 'coach longevity', and have spoken publicly about their personal experiences in this regard to raise awareness of this important issue.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN ELITE SPORT...

It has been argued that in the realms of elite sport work-life balance is a myth. The contention of ideas such as the 'four burner theory' is that in order to achieve elite practice you must divert your energies away and essentially neglect other areas in your life (for example, friends, family), at least for periods of time.

Whilst being involved in elite sport inevitably involves trade-offs, particularly at critical times, I do not entirely subscribe to these views. Rather, balance can be maintained at different times simply by shifting the fulcrum on the seesaw, according to the priority area(s) at any particular time. I would argue that maintaining key relationships with family and friends outside of 'work' is in fact critical to being effective as a practitioner.

THE FORGOTTEN HUMAN ELEMENT OF PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT...

Practitioners who enthusiastically engage in professional development nevertheless often neglect to consider that this should include developing themselves as a human. The importance of @@investing in developing oneself beyond the realms of practice is paramount@@. 

Whatever the field of expertise, one's effectiveness as a practitioner is ultimately contingent on the quality and success of human interactions. From this viewpoint, failing to attend to this critical 'human element' and invest appropriate time in developing in these areas, would appear to be negligent in the extreme.

There is an argument that @@in order to be a good coach it is necessary to first be a good human@@. Certainly to be a well adjusted human, an individual's self concept should be about more than merely their vocation as a practitioner. Successfully maintaining a life outside work is an integral part of developing who you are beyond the context of the sport or profession you work in. 

At the very least, most would agree that when counselling athletes on lifestyle factors the message will be far better received if the practitioner is able to demonstrate personal success in these areas.

To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, to be credible when advocating certain healthy behaviours concerning sleep, dietary practices, and lifestyle in general with our athletes, the practitioner must be the change they wish to see.

As part of investing time in their personal development, coaches and practitioners should explore strategies to better negotiate the challenges of modern living. Given the pressures of elite sport, and associated demands on practitioners' time, adopting appropriate strategies will be all the more necessary in order to @@reclaim time and 'head space' to have some semblance of a life beyond work@@. As we will discuss, the pervasive nature of mobile technology and social media add new challenges that have not been faced previously. Such features of modern life and the information age therefore requires evolving new strategies and countermeasures.

CONTACT WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD BRINGS PERSPECTIVE...

From a broader perspective, carving out time and investing energy in one's life beyond work should be viewed as a necessary countermeasure for combating the myopia that comes from residing in the bubble of elite sport. It is vitally important to be able to maintain some level of detachment and perspective. Retaining the sense that there is a real world outside of the bubble of the particular sporting context will serve the practitioner particularly well in the high-pressure situations around competition that are experienced in the crucible of elite sport.

To give an example, the best coach that I have worked with in professional sport is Brendan Venter. Brendan is hugely passionate about the game; however, Brendan is also a medical doctor. As such, Brendan has a profound understanding of what 'life and death' actually entails. Those fortunate to work with Brendan will attest to the fact this is evident in how he conducts himself, particularly during high-pressure situations. I recall a particular team talk in the changing room immediately following a bitterly disappointing loss in a vital game: rather than being caught up in the emotion of the moment, Brendan instead reassured the players that the sun would still rise the next morning. The broader perspective from Brendan's life beyond sport made this extraordinary display of leadership possible.

Conversely, in the absence of a life outside work, the only social interaction available to the practitioner is with colleagues and athletes with whom they work. This is a problem as lines are likely to become blurred. Clearly this is not conducive to maintaining professional boundaries, particularly for a coach given how critical it is to keep appropriate distance in order to conduct their duties, such as selection. Moreover, @@solely interacting with others within the 'bubble' certainly does nothing to foster a sense of perspective@@.

STRATEGIES FOR STAYING AFLOAT....

In case taking care of one's health and psycho-social well-being for its own sake is not a sufficiently strong motivator, retaining a functional life outside work is also an integral part of being an effective and credible practitioner, as we have spoken about. What this ultimately comes down to is allocating appropriate time and attention to managing oneself, in the same way as we do for our athletes.

A first step is having the bravery to resist the need to be seen to be present without any specific purpose. Once this obstacle is overcome, we can turn our attention to implementing strategies to be productive versus simply being busy.

Achieving success in this regard will involve being intentional and very deliberate in how we approach our work. Practically, this might include adopting simple measures such as batching admin tasks together and tackling them in a serial and a concentrated fashion, rather than breaking away to attend to other tasks as they come up, and being forced to repeatedly switch attention back and forth in between.

Ultimately we want to ensure we are actually being productive during the time we spend at the workplace each day; then leave. Moreover, it is incumbent upon us to exercise the discipline to leave work when we leave work.

MANAGING CONSUMPTION OF INFORMATION...

Outside of day-to-day tasks, practitioners also face challenges in their efforts to engage in continuing education and professional development. As discussed in a previous post, chief among these is how to navigate the seas of information, particularly the vast quantities of data from a myriad of sources available online, in order to derive value and engage in meaningful learning.

A good analogy for the information age is the obesity epidemic in the developed world. The root cause is our compulsive behaviour and failure to make good choices in the face of ready access. Burgeoning obesity is simply the cumulative effect of the fact that as a population we ingest too many calories and too many of the calories we consume are short on nutritional value.

There are clear parallels here on how we consume data, and particularly how we utilise mobile technology to do so. In this era of 'hyper-connectivity' there is too much constant snacking and compulsive over-consumption of social media and the various other information sources available online. In general, we are continually attempting to ingest more bytes of data, and too many of the bytes of data we consume are short on meaningful information.

Data does not always equal information.
Information does not equal knowledge.
Knowledge without context is not necesssarily meaningful or useful.
— twitter.com/informedinsport

Clearly there is a need to be more selective. The sources of data we choose to consume each day must be carefully chosen to be rich in quality content. That said, arguably the bigger issue, and a critical first step, is that the way in which we consume this data must also become more directed and more deliberate.

Undirected or poorly directed sampling from this sea of information consumes vast quantities time and attention with very little return on investment. With unflinching self-reflection many of us would admit to being guilty of this. It is important that we understand what drives this behaviour. Often it is fear: fear of missing out; fear of becoming out of touch and no longer being on the cutting edge; and most of all fear that our peers in the field are gaining on us as a result.

A compounding factor is that smart devices and the software applications on these devices are likewise designed with the specific intent to foster, reward and reinforce the compulsive use of this technology. In this way, users of this smart technology are unwittingly the subject of 'operant conditioning' to the extent that behaviour becomes shaped by these devices, applications and features.

Aside from becoming a slave to your smartphone, the modern phenomenon of smart devices and hyper-connectivity also blurs the boundaries between office hours and leisure time.

It is critical that we become aware of such triggers for compulsive and unproductive behaviours. We must also be mindful of what such behaviour costs us with respect to time that could be allocated to being productive, or invested in our health and relationships. Moreover, this recognition needs to be accompanied by action: we must take active steps to be more deliberate and intentional with how we use tools like mobile technology.

When seeking to develop in a professional capacity, relevant information must be consumed in such a way we can process and derive meaning. Only in this way will our efforts serve to ultimately improve our understanding or give us something we can actually use. 

One practical measure is to look for resources that synthesise information from multiple sources (for instance, 'Comprehensive Strength and Conditioning' cites 776 different references from the sports science and medicine literature). Another strategy is to find a mentor who is able to demystify, translate, provide meaning, and put the information in context in a way that makes it real and applicable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must take steps to 'go offline' when not at work. In a landmark case for occupational health, the right to disconnect from receiving and responding to work communications outside of office hours was recently mandated in law in France. As practitioners, we must follow this lead and reach agreement with colleagues (and athletes) to clearly define and maintain 'work hours', on the understanding that we will not respond to communications outside of those hours. Clearly this must be reinforced by the discipline to unplug from mobile devices and resist the impulse to check email and social media during these offline hours. Furthermore, the reclaimed time should be allocated and invested appropriately in health, relationships and cultivating a life outside work.

Enjoyed the read? Check out the Books section for more on a variety of topics relating to physical preparation, athletic development and sports injury.

Name *
Name