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Pro athletes: Where is the advantage?

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Pro athletes see the benefit in fitness programs, and most work with trainers and coaches who target their physical weaknesses to prevent future injuries.

It used to be that guiding a pro athlete toward better performance was easy. They would be missing some obvious component of a world class program: a weakness here, poor nutrition there, an injury not fully recovered from. Times have changed. We can see this in the recent defeats of two of the world’s greatest and fittest sports stars.

Almost every pro athlete we see at the Stone Clinic has a solid fitness program involving Crossfit-like extreme training, and cross training in the off season. They all know how to get strong and have access to trainers and coaches who have internalized the fact that a specific physical weakness can lead to an early injury.

The pros know about nutrition. They know that protein is necessary for muscle building and that optimizing the balance in their diet is more important than the huge carb-laden training tables of the past. They all, especially the long distance athletes, know about fueling during sports. Hydration has become a commonplace science, with access to electrolyte replenishment everywhere — even poured over the heads of successful coaches.

The pros know about massage and soft tissue mobilization, as practiced by superb physical therapists. They use the latest in yoga and Pilates, along with novel stretching techniques, to help them remain flexible. The “wimp” fears of the old days — i.e., an aversion to spending time in Lycra filled stretching classes — has given way to a useful realization: It is better to spend time in there than in hospital gowns.

And the pros know about coaching: who is good for them, and who is not. They know enough to seek out
individual coaches if the team coach is not clicking with them. They use the resources of the Internet to find out about the latest strategies that other teams and athletes are employing.

All the pros use technology on both a personal and team level to monitor their performance and strategize about moves, feints, forms and styles: the
choreography of winning performances. These interconnected athletes represent not just local wisdom, but the global skill set of world’s best.

So what is missing, and how do we help these pros get even better?

Almost to a person, the one weakness that is most difficult to fix in athletes lies in the mind itself. Mental conditioning, the approach to an injury and its recovery,
the overcoming of physiological blocks that prevent a physical superstar from being a winner — these are so ingrained that they remain the most difficult weaknesses to fix.

The patterns that serve or obstruct even great athletes are often learned on children’s playgrounds, on youth teams and through skillful parenting. The phenomenal successes of players like Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams are brought to a stop only by psychological weaknesses — distractions that cause them to lose their swing, their temper or their confidence despite seeming at the top of their game. Federer, Woods and Williams were coached to stunning physical successes — but left mentally exposed.

It is not impossible to change. We can work on these issues, and many doctors and mental empowerment coaches are successful at it. But it’s not easy unless it starts very early. The lesson I take from this is the importance of sophisticated, intuitive and careful coaching of children. Their approach to sport will be imprinted in their psyches forever. If done well in the beginning, all else is coachable.

Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco. He pioneers advanced orthopedic surgical and rehabilitation techniques to repair, regenerate and replace damaged cartilage and ligaments.

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