If you are like me, you’ve been watching the Olympics–marveling at the abilities of world-class athletes.
If you are like me circa 3 years ago, you also assume these same athletes have mastered proper movement patterns. However, you and the younger me, are wrong (at least some of the time).
The question: Being a world-class athlete and mastering movement should be the same thing, no?
In fact my friends, it is not… not even close to being the same.
Let’s take a look at 2 specific examples of extremely high-level athletes, still playing and competing at a world class level despite some remarkable dysfunction and inhibitions:
1) Here is a picture of Ben Johnson (far right), the Canadian sprinter and Olympic champion whose medals’ were taken away for doping. Doping or not, this guy was a freak of an athlete. Check out this photo from the Seoul games. (My NYCC classmates should be familiar with this picture as it was a staple in our sports electives)
This picture was snapped immediately after the start. Check out Johnson’s position (quite frankly, the other athletes aren’t perfect here either). I’m no sprint coach, but this is a hot mess (technical term). Let’s forget his arm position for a second and look only at his hips. As he attempts to push-off the block with his left leg, his hip totally collapses to that side. The proper term for this would be Positive Trendelenburg sign. Others would call these inhibited or weak lateral hip stabilizers. Still, some would call this a weak ass (again, technical term).
Why does this happen? I’m purely speculating here, but it could be that Johnson and his coach Charlie Francis forgot to train anything except linear (straight ahead) movement. Quite frankly, this is extremely common for track athletes who live their life training in a straight ahead plane. Yes, a majority of training needs to occur during linear speed work, but we must also remember the accessory planes as well.
2) We recently saw a professional basketball player with some low back issues in the office. After examining him, the typical suspects came out clean. His core was efficient, hips stabilizers weren’t functioning, and his ankle mobility was adequate. In fact, he specifically told us that he liked to play in low top sneakers to keep his ankles mobile.
As we moved a little further down the chain, we found something interesting in his feet. He literally had no ability to flex his big toe. It wasn’t a mobility issue either. His flexor hallicus was just so inhibited he literally could not curl his toe. The importance of big toe function is paramount. Honestly, it could take up an entire article itself.
For now however, just imagine one of the main components in transmitting force from the ground through the kinetic chain is completely turned off. It can absolutely wreak havoc on body. In this specific case, the low back just happened to take the brunt of abuse.
World-class athletes are so much more than physical specimens. Really, they are neurological wizards. They are good at what they do because they have figured out a way to complete a task in the most efficient way possible–they’ve mastered compensation. However, efficiency in no way always means biomechanically sound. It’s like cheating on a test. Just because you got the right answer does not mean you went about it in the correct way. And eventually, you will get caught for cheating. On a test you get expelled. In athletics, you get hurt.
Truthfully, as a clinician or trainer, cases like this should make you extremely skeptical. I would go out on a limb and say that the better the athlete, the more you should be on guard and investigate. The fact that these athletes can compete at such a high level, yet have pain, is a huge yellow flag. This tells us that something in the system is working overtime for something that isn’t working at all. Again, the site of pain most often will not be the site of dysfunction. It now becomes our job to figure it out.