Opinion piece inspired by Tony Minichiello

I have been considering writing an opinion piece for a while now. Much of what I write on the blog is around the subject matter I study grounded in research.  Although my field is sociology based I like to gauge how academics from other fields view my thoughts and findings.  This has opened up some very interesting discussions with varying view points around subjects such as early specialisation, injury prevention and cultural climate.  The one thing we agree on resoundingly is that cultural change is required to promote and protect athlete wellbeing.

This post was triggered initially after attending a conference where I was fortunate to hear Tony Minichiello’s keynote speech about his work with Jess Ennis-Hill over an enviable career.  I sat mesmerised by his charismatic presence and thought provoking talk, nodding along throughout as he described a coaching philosophy I wish I could see more of within the gymnastics culture.

My own background in sport has been quite diverse and I have viewed sports from a number of facets; performer, coach and parent (all at a high level).  Each bring with it a new understanding of the coach-athlete dyad, which in my opinion would be better served as a coach-athlete-parent triad.  A point Tony made was that success is a team effort, with an athlete centred approach, “We’re all cogs within the machine.  Sometimes you’re going to be a big cog, and sometimes you’re going to be a small cog. So if [Jess] is injured, the physio will be a big cog, the nutritionist and psychologist might be a medium cog, and the one turns the other.”  Tony reiterated it was about finding the right team, the team that communicate effectively and gel into one, knowing when to take the lead and when to step back.  Parents are an integral part of the team especially in youth sport, with communication and trust in the process paramount for ongoing success.  This point was raised by Tony, “Ignore the family at your peril, they are the initial UK Sport, before UK Sport.  They are the funder, they buy the kit, they drive the taxi, they pay for stuff, they are the people who are massively invested … Include them in your team.”  Family are the athlete’s support network away from the training hall, when athletes are injured family support is critical for positive recovery.

Injury is not simply a physical manifestation for many athletes, cognitive responses also come into effect. Destabilisation of athletic identity coupled with a sense of loss can lead to mood disturbances such as depression and anxiety with fear of re-injury increasing negative emotions.  Poor cognitive coping is likely to affect rehabilitation adherence which in turn may lengthen the recovery process, in fact maladaptive coping mechanisms have been shown to negatively influence a successful return to sport.  This is where a strong positive support network comes into play, studies have shown that athletes who discuss their feelings about injury are less likely to suffer longer term negative emotions.  A supportive coach who adheres to rehabilitation programmes and is positive toward recovery is essential for a favourable return to training and competition.  Which brings me back to Tony’s speech; listening to him describe an injury setback for Jess and the manner in which it was handled gave me pause for thought.  Here was a coach taking ownership for the injury to his athlete!  He admitted “Olympic disease gripped us by the throat”.  A change in circumstances for both Jess and himself led to an increase in training and subsequently 3 stress fractures and a stress reaction in her foot.  Tony admitted it was his programme that caused the injury and he should have been more careful despite Jess’s desire to go all out in the lead up to Beijing.  Tony subsequently educated himself about increasing training loads appropriately so as to have the knowledge to prevent a similar outcome.

This theme of ownership was apparent throughout the talk.  Tony discussed the importance of getting the training regime, goal setting and participation in competitive events just right.  He acknowledged if competitive targets were not met it must be because he had not prepared his athletes effectively  (be that physically or mentally), time was then taken to re-evaluate the programme and iron out the wrinkles.  In Tony’s words “Athletes do not set out to fail”.

Alongside coach ownership lies athlete autonomy.  Athletes should be free to have a voice.  Discussion around the subject with my peers has always led to the conclusion gymnasts should have autonomy and feel safe to voice their concerns.  There is little athlete agency in gymnastics which many believe has contributed to a culture of silence.  Gymnasts are often infantilised with their views either disregarded or never heard.  The sport has moved on since the days gymnasts were coached to peak at 14 in time for their first and often only Olympic Games. The idea that only pre-pubescent female bodies can perform the skills required to stand atop the Olympic podium is outdated; with gymnasts continuing into their mid to late 20’s coaches need to re-evaluate their autocratic coaching methods.

Along the same theme, is it necessary for women’s artistic gymnastics to be an all consuming early specialisation sport?  There is a plethora of literature that suggests early specialisation and year round training are detrimental to sporting growth and longevity, however, sports cited are usually those where athletes gain technique in their formative years then acquire strength, stamina, strategy etc. as they mature.  I am not aware of any studies that show sports such as gymnastics, diving, ice skating etc. can have the desired outcome with specialisation in the teens and down time during the off season.  Discussion suggests it may be possible, especially with gymnasts retiring later in their careers however, there are no systems in place to test the validity of this structure.  Most elite clubs will write off a gymnast who choses to reduce training hours to partake in other activities, starts the sport too late or whose parents insist on an end of season prolonged break each year.

I would be interested to hear thoughts as to whether a reduced prepubescent training load would be medically advantageous in reducing overuse injuries such as OCD, physeal injuries, avulsion fractures (ischial tuberosity/tibial tuberosity) and stress fractures of the facet joint.  Cue Tony … “I started coaching Jess at 13 years of age and it was all really about planning for talent, planning for development, and part of that is about making your athlete resilient, and I mean physically resilient.  Injury free.  Can I lay three to four years on top of each other without any significant injury to hold her back?”  I am not suggesting gymnasts should start their formal training at 13, just that with so many growth/stress related injuries athletes are susceptible to during their adolescence, perhaps stepping back a bit in the formative years would decrease the injury rate and afford gymnasts greater longevity with their careers.

A lot to ponder!  Interested to hear views on these points.

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