Astrid Schubring1, Natalie Barker-Ruchti2, Anna Post1 & Stefan Pettersson1
1 Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden; 2 Division of Sport Science, School of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden
Research has long identified a culture of risk in elite sport, which encourages athletes to make health sacrifices for the sake of success (Baker et al., 2014; Howe, 2004; Nixon, 1992; Young, 2004). Existing studies are mostly retrospective and unspecific to different phases in an athlete’s career. Addressing this research gap, the Paths-to-Rio study captured changes in Olympic hopefuls’ health behaviour and identified reasons for athletes’ risky or caring health behaviour. A prospective design allowed accompanying 12 elite athletes over the course of a year in which they aimed to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 (n=10) or a World Championship (n=2). We used a mix of methods to collect data, including a career background questionnaire, training observations, a weekly online survey, and three interviews with each athlete. We first analysed the different data types case-wise and then used cross-case comparison to identify athlete health behaviours and reasons for change in behaviour (Schubring et al., 2019).
Temporary risk taking to increase chances to qualify
Elite athletes were generally critical towards elite sport risk behaviour and aware of its potential health and performance damages. ‘My philosophy is, if you are in pain, it’s not going to get better if you train hard’ (female athlete, individual sport). However, the athletes described finding the ‘right balance’ between ‘pushing the limits’ and taking care of their bodily needs challenging. Most of them used temporary risk-taking in order to increase their chances to qualify or to secure a spot in the OG/WC team. One athlete competed with an injury, another used painkillers to keep training, and yet another went fatigued to a training camp and injured herself.
Important reasons why athletes chose or felt urged to adopt risky health behaviour were found in organisational conditions. Insufficient financial and medical/nutritional support posed a problem for several athletes. Out of twelve elite athletes, nine were non- or semi-professional athletes with little funding. Consequently, they pursued part-time jobs or studies well into the qualification phase, which often comprised recovery time. Even for the professional athletes, preparing for the Olympics with the national team while at the same time having obligations for a top-league club or a professional team, led athletes to adopt risky behaviour. A major problem for team sport athletes were conflicts in timing between club season and qualifiers or training camps for the OG. Some club coaches put additional pressures on players by urging them to come to a camp despite the players’ need to recover or by benching players upon return from national team events.
Career constellations also encouraged risk-taking in athletes. Athletes who suffered injury and sickness in the qualification phase often experienced this as unaffordable time loss and returned too early to training and competition. Athletes who attached great importance to participation in the OG or WC, for example because they had failed to qualify at earlier occasions, were also more prone to take risks (Barker-Ruchti et al., 2019).
Finally, we also found personal backgrounds such as family obligations, end of partnership, prior injuries, and burnout to be of influence. These life circumstances resulted in additional time pressures, vulnerability, or lack of social support, which limited the affected athletes’ ability to care for their health.
What enables elite athletes to care for their health?
The longitudinal study allowed us to identify how athletes cared for their health despite a pressured career phase. Such positive health behaviour is not widely researched (for exceptions see e.g. Barker-Ruchti et al., 2017; Schubring & Thiel, 2016). Athlete health care behaviour included resting instead of taking pain-killers, using a professionally advised long term plan to lose weight for the season instead of pathogenic weight-making, skipping a training camp to properly nurse an injury, and taking time with friends and family to regain energy. These health care behaviours were enabled by sound medical, nutritional, and financial support, the coordination of obligations for national team and contracting club in team sports, dialogic coaching with a long-term perspective, as well as social support and athletes’ health knowledge.
Benefits of participation in research
Athletes evaluated their involvement in the study as positive and described benefits such as increased self- and career awareness, possibilities for reflection on health behaviour, and learning (Schubring et al., 2019). We believe it is important to communicate such benefits of research participation to sport organizations, coaches, parents, and athletes.
The Paths-to-Rio study is to our knowledge the first that followed elite athletes during a 12 months career phase in which they attempted to qualify, and partly also participated in the Olympic Games (n=6). The prospective, qualitative study design allowed us to establish how career dynamics change athletes’ health behaviour, and to identify conditions for risky or healthy behaviour in elite athletes. This knowledge is central for sport organisations, and coaches to prepare and support Olympic hopefuls adequately and to reduce precarity and health risks. This would improve elite athletes’ chance to navigate successfully and safely through the qualification phase.
The authors thank the Swedish Research Council for Sport Science (CIF) for supporting this study. They also thank the participating athletes for sharing their experience and the national governing bodies and coaches that helped with the recruitment.
Copyright © Astrid Schubring, Natalie Barker-Ruchti,
Anna Post & Stefan Pettersson 2020