Coaches: Gatekeeper of Dreams

This post comes after months of thinking about the role of the coach in an athlete’s life. I’ve had conversations with coaches, both sport and strength and conditioning coaches, about what they feel their role is in athlete development. It is inspiring to hear the passion they have in supporting athletes in their goals. It gets me excited to interact with these athletes and help them in whatever way I can as well.

In my clinic, I have seen elite athletes with pain or injuries who need help getting better and back to their sport. I want to know what their short- and long-term goals are, in order to give them the best recommendations for where they want to go. Some players play because they love it, with no particular want to go further than the youth level or playing for fun. Others dream of making it to the professional level. But often times, they don’t know what extra “stuff” they should be doing to get them there.

I reflect on these encounters and I think… imagine this athlete didn’t come here, where we use progressive exercise as our main modality for getting people better. Where if you have dreams of playing in College/University or professionally, we recommend you start training for it. We assess them for range of motion, strength and movement quality, because these things matter in the long run. Imagine they only received passive therapy and even though the pain goes away, the reason the pain happened didn’t get addressed. What if I was only concerned with making them feel better, not making them better and stronger. Because perhaps they are talented, skilled and have the basic athleticism to make it big, but they don’t get the support they need to actually do it.

Add COVID to the situation, and many athletes’ plans have been delayed or canceled. They are unable to train or play their sport, their season got canceled and they aren’t able to showcase their talent to recruiters and coaches. Again, another conversation got me thinking… there are so many things we can’t control about this situation, but we are able to control how we react. It would be easy to sit there and be sad about it all, wait until things come back to normal and start training again. Or it can be used as an opportunity to get ahead of everyone else who is waiting. You can use this as an opportunity to do other training that would be beneficial, like strength work, focus on improving nutrition and the mental side of the game. As a coach you have the power to highlight these opportunities for athletes, and help them access the resources they need to do that.

These conversations and reflections get me thinking about what we can do to help athletes achieve their goals. They have also inspired me to try to reach a broader audience on the topic.

What Is A Coach

The definition of a coach is one who instructs or trains; especially, one who instructs players in the fundamentals of sport and directs strategy. But as a former athlete, I know that coaches are much more than that. I know how much a coach can have an impact on a player, whether it is good or bad. Coaches interact with athletes on a daily basis. It can be emails, calls, on-field or in the gym, they form relationships that are complex and multi-layered. These relationships are based on shared experiences, trust, understanding and expectation. Coaches see the athlete in their best and worst moments. Moments of struggle, difficulty and pain, and moments of joy, excitement and thrill. Coaches are the ones who push the athlete beyond their limit, they communicate the good, the bad and the ugly. They can be the bearer of bad news but also share in the celebration when their work finally pays off. Each athlete demands something different of the coach, and the coach needs to see and understand this, becoming a chameleon for what each individual may need.

What Do Chiropractors and Coaches Have in Common?

Growing up I knew I wanted to help people but I didn’t know exactly how. As a young athlete, I loved the concept of health, learning how to improve myself, understanding the human body, and learning about sports injuries. When I didn’t get into medical school, it wasn’t the end of the world because I knew I could help people in other ways. Now I see that rejection as a blessing. As a chiropractor I get to spend time with people. I’m not rushing to get patients in and out the door in a few minutes. I get to talk to them, understand their pain, where it came from, why it’s so important for them to get out of pain and what they enjoy doing. I get to have the conversation about their goals, their dreams, what they want to achieve. I get to help them get there. It is the relationship between me and the patient that helps them understand that we are in it together and I am here to help.

Similarly, the coach gets to build this type of relationship with the athlete. Beyond knowing what their goals are, coaches have the advantage of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete. They are able to give advice about what needs to be done to take them from where they are to where they want to be.

As a chiropractor, I am the gatekeeper to your physical health and well-being. As a coach, you are the gatekeeper to the athlete’s dream. What a wonderful position to be in… but as the expression goes, with greater power comes great responsibility.

Helping Athletes Achieve Their Dreams

Coaches get to spend so much valuable time with athletes. Not only does the athlete trust that you are traveling this path with them, teaching them the ins and outs of the game they love. You are there through the hard work, the struggle and the progress. For those who express the goal of pursuing the sport beyond the youth level, they may expect you to help them seek opportunities to do that. And as a coach, you are often prepared for that. However, there is a side of the athlete that I often see neglected, and that’s because of my job. As a sports chiropractor, I usually see people when they’re hurt. I see athletes desperate to find out what happened to their back, knee or ankle and how long it will keep them on the bench. And when that happens, coaches too, want to know how long they’ll be down a player.

This is where I think we have failed our young athletes. So many players want to become professionals, but they don’t see all the behind the scenes that is required to get them there or keep them there. They think that training in their sport every day will be enough to reach their dreams. But they aren’t doing the basic things they need to make sure they can sustain this. We live in a time where sport specialization for a young athlete is the norm, without the education and support they need throughout the process. Professional athletes workout multiple times a week to get strong, powerful and fast. They have access to massage therapists, chiropractors and physiotherapists on a regular basis to maintain their body in the best possible condition. They understand the importance of a good diet and have the resources to maintain that. Professionals have all the tools they need at their disposal to maintain a high level of performance and be resilient athletes. And yet, even at that level, pain and injuries happen. Now imagine what happens when you play at high intensity, multiple days a week without those resources? How are these young athletes expected to thrive long-term in their sport?

Instead of sending your athlete to a healthcare professional when they get injured, why not send them before? Why not get them assessed by someone who understands the demands of their sport and who can identify what they need to work on? Why not recommend strength and conditioning training so they can work on their weaknesses and identify where there might be a risk of injury in the future. Keep them off the bench before they get there. This type of approach is just as important as setting up scouting tournaments or games, getting players in touch with recruiters or making highlight reel videos. I would argue, it is even more important. Strong athletes are faster athletes. They are more resilient to injury. They can play longer and think faster when they aren’t tired. They are less likely to experience overuse injuries that happen because their bodies aren’t prepared for the level they are playing at. These proactive steps keep your athletes strong and healthy so they have the best chance of always playing their best.

I’m sure it can be hard when you have a whole team of athletes who want different things, and your main concern is the success of the team. As it should be. But supporting and encouraging individual athletes to reach their maximum potential in all aspects of their lives will help the team as well. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; by strengthening an individual link, you strengthen the chain itself. The same goes for individual athletes and the team as a whole.

Coaches play such an important role in the development of the athlete. They teach them skills, on and off the field. They give them advice and encouragement throughout their development as people and athletes. Coaches provide opportunities for success and lessons in failure. This ongoing and special relationship is built on trust and the understanding that the coach is there to guide the athlete to their goals and dreams. Coaches have the ability to recognize what the athlete needs and provide them with the resources and recommendations to help them get to where they want to go. It can sometimes seem daunting because we feel like we need to be the one to provide the athlete with everything but remember we are all experts in something. Provide the athlete with what you know and refer to others when you don’t feel like your knowledge is enough. We, the people around our young athletes, need to do better by them. Remember, coaches are the gatekeepers to the athlete’s dream. The power you have in helping the athlete succeed is monumental, take advantage of that to make sure they get the best advice, support and resources to help them reach their goals!

About The Author

Dr. Melissa Corso has an undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences and a Masters degree in human health and nutritional sciences from the University of Guelph and was a former Varsity soccer player. She graduated from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College (CMCC) in 2016 and completed the Sports Science residency in 2018. In 2019 she became a fellow of the Royal College of Chiropractic Sports Sciences (Canada). Dr. Corso is in private practice at an inter-disciplinary clinic in Richmond Hill, Ontario and a research associate at the Centre for Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation at Ontario Tech and CMCC. In her spare time, she

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