The incapable athlete

Definition: not adequate, helpless

Our modern culture has increasingly disenfranchised us from many of our own inborn abilities. This has an enormous knock-on effect on athleticism and physical competence in a population.

We live in a victim culture, in some places even a ‘nanny-state’, where the first response is generally to intervene rather than letting things ‘play out’ and allowing us, as individuals, to figure out solutions on our own.

This tendency even permeates our intellectual world. Any question or answer is only a click or Google search away. Most of us can no longer mend basic wounds. We go to the doctor to have issues dealt with that mothers, grandmothers and ‘wise uncles’ could easily take care of in the past.

Eager sellers of ‘artificial support’, armed with research studies, will put your limbs in a cast rather than carefully suggesting that ‘perhaps we can work this weakness for a bit and see if you can do it on your own’.

Human-kind arose to its dominant place on this planet because we had the necessary self-sufficiency – both within social groups and when on our own – to adapt and respond to a vast variety of physical and mental challenges every day. We could not always count on others to bail us out. Modern culture, for reasons of efficiency, drove us into specialised niches. As far as our sporting culture is concerned this has likely gone too far: we ‘outsource’ every small pain or decision to someone ‘with expertise’ become incapable and incompetent to ‘run our own bodies’ in the process.

I have a personal vision of a culture of competent and empowered individuals and athletes – much in the vein of what Australian coach Percy Cerutty dreamed of (and realised – in the microcosm of his Portsea Camp) – who do not need a consultant to tell them how to go to get out of bed in the morning.

My concerns are not with experts – therapists, coaches, consultants – I hope to count myself among them – but with the rule we ascribe to them in our society. We need these professionals to take on the role of teachers – so that when you have worked with a consultant or a therapist you are more capable and more independent than you were before you worked with them. This is the litmus test.

The difficulty comes from the pressure on consultants and therapists to ‘intervene’ even when it would be better to do less (it is hard to justify charging for services you do not deliver) and from patients who want ‘quick results’ or ‘instant fixes’. This increases the demand for short-term interventions (massage, ankle braces) at the expense of long-term education (physical conditioning, technical coaching). We need to reverse that relationship and unfortunately this can only be done coach by coach and athlete by athlete.

To begin: if you are therapist, health professional or coach who does not deal with emergency care, you should see your primary role as a long-term educator. Your aim is to make your student or patient fully self-sufficient. This means assisting them in getting rid of both physical and mental crutches. It also means that your success criteria is a student or patient who may one day no longer need you. This should not cause financial concern – dedicated students will want to learn ‘what’s next’ and even if they stop coming to you for advise, others will take note of their results and come to you.

Breeding such self-sufficiency back into our population will be a keystone piece in repairing our Running Culture.*

* And general culture. I have always seen my own life as evolving away from running specifically, and into life generally, as I get into ‘old age’. We all have a vested interest in all the people around us being capable and self-sufficient. Every person who is not increases the burden on the rest. That is not a call to ‘cull the weak’ – rather to empower them, where possible. 





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