Dr Ed Coughlan: We don’t have to break to find our limit

Why does it take a serious injury for an athlete to take notice that what they’re doing is not working for them?
Dr Ed Coughlan: We don’t have to break to find our limit

Joint gold medalists Mutaz Essa Barshim of Team Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Team Italy celebrate on the podium. Picture: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As the Tokyo 2020 Olympics roll on, the festival of sport continues to deliver.

Nationally, we have had splendid performances this last week.

Yet one sport captured the spirit of the Games like no other this week. The men’s high jump final. Three rounds into the final it was already spoken of as the greatest Olympic final in history such was the number of clean cards from so many competitors. But eventually, there were only two athletes who could not be separated as the bar was raised to its final height of 2.39m - Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim.

For Tamberi, this height matched his personal best, which he jumped back in 2016. For Barshim, his personal best was 2.43m, a height he had not cleared since 2014. But there was something special at play this time around, as neither seemed to scare the bar at any point in time as it climbed from 2.19m to the final unconquered 2.39m. In a situation like this, where the bronze medal was already decided and won by Maksim Nedasekau from Belarus, there is normally a jump-off where the athletes continue to try to clear the final height, before it is deemed too high and the bar starts coming down in height and the first athlete to miss loses.

However, on this occasion something very different happened. As both Tamberi and Barshim were being consulted by the event referee about what lay ahead, Barshim, the more successful and more well-known of the two, asked could there be two gold medals, therefore sharing the honours and forfeiting the jump-off.

As the stadium and television viewers watched and waited, the reaction from both men, but especially Tamberi, immediately reflected the outcome that there would be two athletes on the top step of the podium for this Games’ high jump gold medal ceremony.

For Barshim, it completed the Olympic medal collection, following his bronze in London 2012, his silver in Rio 2016, he now had his coveted gold from Tokyo 2020. For Tamberi, it was the medal he wanted in Rio, when he was in the shape and form of his life only to break his leg a few short weeks before the Games began in Brazil. The plaster cast from that injury was trackside with him during the final as a reminder of the injury.

In fact, this year’s Olympics has a recurring theme to it of overcoming adversity. Besides the obvious challenge that Covid-19 posed for everyone, there is an incredible number of athletes who appear to mention injury in their post-event interviews. We seldom see injury as a positive thing to happen to anyone, but the thread of stories emerging from Tokyo tells a different tale.

Barshim and Tamberi spoke about how injuries helped restructure their training and encouraged them to take a more philosophical look at their athletics career. In the age of training load data analytics, there remains a fear that most athletes still train too much, too often, too hard, with insufficient recovery.

Injuries emerge as a result of pushing the body to the limit, how else can we know what we are capable of doing?

Right?

Wrong.

Or at worst, not necessarily so. We don’t have to break to find our limit.

Good fortune to those who have turned an injury into a positive, but for many others, an injury is the beginning of the end, if not the end. Moreover, recurring injuries speak to a darker truth of an athlete refusing to listen to their body.

In our quest to go faster, higher, stronger we need to appreciate it is not necessary to break in order to build.

Why does it take a serious injury for an athlete to take notice that what they’re doing is not working for them?

The flipside of an injury can be seen in athletes being fresher for competition, as recovery protocols are often more strictly adhered to in the weeks and months following a layoff. The remainder of what it felt like while being restricted is often a strong enough incentive for athletes to do things differently if and when they get another chance.

However, surely a training programme without injury and layoff is more beneficial, especially when we hear of the strain on athlete’s mental health when they are forced away from what they believe to be their raison d’etre.

The more patient we are with the process of development of an athlete, recognising that each one requires bespoke training programmes, the more likely we are to see athletes going through their careers with less, or even no overuse injury.

The lessons from those who’ve reluctantly been there, done that, and wore their leg in a cast can be learned vicariously, and not in actuality if we are prepared to check in on how things are going more often and in more detail.

Sport needs to be more about strain than pain, and building than breaking.

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