Raising a High Level Athlete

With the Rio 2016 Olympics coming to a close we now have a nation of young athletes who are left in awe and lit up by their new heroes.  We have had the chance to watch the BEST in the world compete against one another and they were absolutely incredible. Sitting on this side of the TV screen we are shown the highlights, the wins and the losses. We get to know the athletes and we cheer on our favourites. But it is easy to forget about the challenges, the injuries, and the long hours spent training. Most of these athletes have spent their entire lives preparing for this one, single event. Countless hours have been spent with their coaches, parents working two jobs and driving back and forth to practice, families sacrificing holidays for more training hours and money spent on gym time rather than amusement park rides.

Growing up a child of a highly competitive mother who was a National level Gymnastics coach, I have received an inside look at the physical and mental challenges that are involved in being a high level athlete. I was lucky enough to watch two Gymnastics World Championships with my mom and my sister; one in London and the second in Belgium. I have worked beside World Class coaches and their athletes. I have a brother who ranked 5th in the world in Tae Kwon Do only to break his leg in an exhibition fight during trials to the Athens Olympics. I have seen the highs and the lows first hand. I have taken part in the sacrifices made to ensure another gets to follow their dreams. And I have seen these dreams being shattered. So when I see a gymnast break their leg on their first vault after they have already qualified for finals on another event, or a swimmer who dives too early and is nearly disqualified, you can bet I am close to tears, as I  know how much work has just been lost with one wrong move. My mom would say this is why I was never a great competitor, but you can bet I won team spirit award!

When it comes to sports there are many factors that can affect how far an athlete will go. It takes an entire team to get one athlete to the Olympics; coaches, parents, siblings, physiotherapists, massage therapists, school teachers, dieticians, community support, and even psychologists.  For any high level athlete it is extremely important that they learn to listen to their body and trust their instincts. From a young age, athletes are pushed to their limits, their potential shining through in the eyes of a well trained coach in a matter of minutes. In the world of gymnastics, kids can start participating at the age of 18 months, basically as soon as they are able to walk. By age 4, coaches are looking for kids who are talented, flexible, strong, and hard working. By age 6 they are already training a couple of days a week.  A female gymnast peaks around age 17. This is an incredibly young age and these athletes must be taught from the beginning how to understand and communicate what their body is telling them. 

Ensuring your child has a good, supportive and educated team can mean the difference between success and failure. But as a parent there also needs to be a great level of trust with all the members of the team. It can be difficult to step back and let someone else take over. At a certain level, your child will spend more time with their coach than with you. So what can you do to keep your child safe and supported?

  • Remind them that no matter what happens you are proud of who they are and what they have accomplished. They need to know their mistakes do not define who they are. 
  • Never push them too hard. You cannot make someone love a sport, and it takes a certain passion to develop the skills necessary to win.
  • Teach them how to communicate. Ask them how their body is feeling, how they are feeling mentally. Teach them how to express those feelings. This way they can have a more enriched relationship with their coaches.
  • Don't let them quit. It is never easy to accomplish your dreams no matter what they are. Everyone wants to quit at some point. Have an expectation that once they start something it is their responsibility to finish it. Once the season is over, if they still aren't fully committed, this is the time to reassess the end goal. 
  • Ensure they are taking care of their bodies. Speak to their coaches to get insight on how you can help. Do they need to work on certain stretches? Would they benefit from seeing a massage therapist, physiotherapist or chiropractor? Should they be doing any hydrotherapy?
  • Fuel their bodies. Send them to training with fruits and veggies. Encourage them to drink lots of water. Starving your kids or putting them on a diet is NOT the goal here. Teach them to respect their bodies. Moderation is key, not deprivation. So let them eat that piece of cake!

Massage therapy can play a huge role in the journey of an athlete. When it comes to sports massage there are three different phases. Pre-Event massage is a fast paced treatment, done without any oils or lotions, used to wake up the muscles, increase circulation and hype-up the athlete. Post-Event massage is a much slower treatment focusing on tissue drainage and soothing fatigued muscles. Most important is the Maintenance massage where athletes of all levels can benefit. This is done between events and used to decrease recovery time, reduce potential injuries, and allow for more intense practice intervals. 

One aspect of sports massage that is not often talked about is the psychological benefits. By making massage a part of the routine, a safe space is created for the athlete to process the highs and the lows of their sport. Whether they take this time discuss it with their therapist or not, it is a great way for them to focus on their body and their breathing, to mentally go over their techniques and to deal with any major set backs in their training. It is not uncommon for athletes to go through a period of depression when their career is suddenly ripped out from under them due to injury or their time has come naturally to retire. By having that comfortable routine established and the space available to them, they have the potential to navigate through this major life change and go through the expected stages of mourning in the privacy of the treatment room.

We can't say enough here at Bloom how important it is for kids of all ages to spend time on the table. Especially if we are expecting them to work and make decisions like adults. Being an athlete isn't easy but as a team we can create kids who not only excel at their sport but who grow into responsible, hard working and driven adults.