The dream for many sportspeople is to forge a long and successful career as a full-time professional athlete. However, only very few are lucky enough to experience this, and many more athletes across the world end up showcasing their talents as a part-time or semi-professional athlete.
Rather than having the luxury of dedicating most of their time to training and recovery, these athletes are required to work full time jobs (often labour intensive), and then attend training sessions at the end of a 10 hour work day, with training loads very similar to that of an elite athlete.
This obviously poses a massive challenge to the athlete. Having to try and fit in work, training, recovery, family time, social time and sleep all in the space of a 24 hour day.
Managing these athletes can also be a massive challenge for the sports physiotherapists helping them to rehabilitate their injuries and keeping them out on the park.
As we know, load management is an integral part of progressing through a rehabilitation plan, and also helping to reduce the risk of any niggles or injuries. Over the past few years, even with limited resources at semi professional sporting organisations, physios and S+C staff have become much better at monitoring and analysing player loads from a physical, mental and emotional perspective. However, this is where the real challenge lies in dealing with players who work physical jobs throughout the day. For example, take a player who has suffered a calf strain 10 days ago. We can’t expect a player to tell us exactly how many times he has gone up and down the ladder during his work day as an electrician, but should this be a consideration in how much running he does at training that night?
For the athlete playing at this level, at the end of the day, their paid work is a higher priority for the majority of them over their ability to play sport. This often means that rehabilitation from an injury is compromised or lengthened in time, due to the pressures of having to return to work and feed their families. Take the athlete who has had an ACL reconstruction, but also works as a carpenter. The athlete will be eager to return to full time work as soon as they get the all clear from their surgeon, but will being on their feet all day and repetitively squatting cause a knee effusion that will then hinder their ability to perform and progress their strength work?
As their sport might not be their number one priority in their lives as mentioned, training consistency can also be a challenge in dealing with players at this level. Work and family commitments can sometimes clash with training sessions, with missed training sessions affecting their training load for that week, and potentially increasing their risk of injury in the coming weeks.
The emotional toll that having to fit so much into one day can take on the athlete, is also a vital consideration as a sports physiotherapist at this level. We are in a great position as sports physiotherapists to chat to players to ask them how they are coping. Whilst strapping their ankle, we can gain a lot of information about whether or not the athlete has a rough day or period or time, and whether or not they should have a lighter night on the track to help not overload their nervous system.
Many challenges and questions have been posed above, but the number one question is what can we as sport physiotherapists do to help semi-professional athletes overcome these challenges?
In my opinion, the best thing we can do here is to educate our athletes as much as possible, and focus on the ‘big-ticket’ items to allow them to stay at their best for as long as possible.
The ‘big-ticket’ items for me are:
- Sleep – As we know, sleep has been shown to be the most important recovery technique out there for athletes. Sleep is available to both professional and semi-professional athletes, so this has to be a priority.
- Importance of communication – Empower and encourage the athletes to communicate with coaches, S+C staff and physios so we can better monitor how they are dealing with the challenges of being a semi-professional athlete.
- Training consistency – Missing a 10km training session during the week and not making up for it, can often lead to an injury down the track from my experience. It is up to the S+C coach, physio and athlete to formulate a plan as to how to best make up for this session.
I am sure for those sport physiotherapists out there who work at this level with athletes, these are common challenges for you, along with many more that I have not mentioned. Because of these challenges, I find working with these athletes highly enjoyable and rewarding, and I hope you do too!
Sam is an APA Titled Sports and Exercise Physiotherapist working in Western Australia. He works as the League Physiotherapist at the South Fremantle Football Club in the Western Australian Football League (WAFL), as well as at a private practice at Lifecare Fremantle. Sam has completed his Masters of Sports Physiotherapy at Curtin University.