The Toll it Takes: How Elite Players are Damaged by Long Seasons

Professional athletes are a rare breed of person. As well as their supreme physical talents, they possess mental resilience and a will to win that is well beyond the ken of most of the rest of us. Sport is littered with stories of heroic endurance in the face of physical injury, and these can be inspiring and frightening in equal measure.

But heroic tales of days gone by are one thing. In the past, players were smaller, lighter and slower. Games, even at the highest level, were not played out at the 100% intensity that almost every top level contest is played at nowadays.

International football players might play as many as 60 to 70 games in a season, depending upon how successful their club is. Even players in League One can face seasons of around 60 games. The EFL Championship is well known for the grinding way that its teams play an unremitting two games a week for almost the entire campaign.

Top sports surgeon Bill Ribbans has highlighted concerns that he has about the cumulative effects of such long seasons on the bodies of professional athletes. Ribbans knows what he is talking about too – during a long career in sports medicine he has worked with a host of top performers. These include Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher as well as Olympic triple jump gold medallist Greg Rutherford.

But rugby union is his favourite sport, and it is the changes that he has seen over the last 25 years or so in the 15-a-side code of rugby that has brought him real concern. Many international players in rugby union will endure a 51-week season this year, when international tours are taken into account. Ribbans believes that kind of schedule is far too punishing for the human body to endure without there being serious consequences later in life for the players who push themselves to such limits.

Obvious damage to players

“The damage is obvious,” he told The Guardian, in a recent interview. “More and more you’re having conversations with players who have arthritis. Over my career you’d see ex-players having their hip and knee replacements in their 50s and 60s. They are now in their 40s or 30s. I’ve got a lad I’ve looked after since he was a teenager. He’s in his 30s and he’s facing a shoulder replacement and his knee is not far behind.”

Such concerns about the amount of games that top athletes have to play may look slightly strange to any older readers. After all, if one takes a look at domestic schedules for professional teams in days gone by, the number of games played was still high. Indeed, at Christmas time up until the late 1960s, it was not unusual to see footballers and rugby league players performing on Christmas Day as well as Boxing Day during the busy festive period.

But while players do not spend months of their lives trekking around their own country playing endless league fixtures anymore, elite players do play many more international games than they used to. There is also much more international travel nowadays, something else that can place more pressure on the bodies of players.

Being continually away from home for long periods can also add to stress levels and cause mental health issues, something that can be disastrous for the performance levels of players at the highest level. Experts describe this kind of pressure as ‘organisational stressors’, and when they combine with ‘personal stressors’ in a player’s life, it can be disastrous for fitness and health, as well as performance.

Organisational stressors are factors such as training issues, travel or poor personal relationships with colleagues such as team mates and coaches. Personal stressors can include relationship or financial problems, traumatic events like bereavement, or family issues. At the top level when players are enduring long and busy schedules, these two types of stressors can soon build up and cause real issues for players.

Andy Kirkland, Ph.D., is a lecturer in sports coaching as well as being an expert in endurance sports. During his career, he has spent time working with Scottish Rugby and top triathletes.

“Athlete well-being and performance are not separate,” he explained, speaking to Firstbeat.com. “Stressors experienced in high-performance are somatic, psychological and social. Components are inseparable. Social factors are usually causal in terms of ‘chronic overload’ but rarely addressed.”

These mental stressors combine with a range of physical stressors such as injury to create a perfect storm of problems for athletes. A long season makes physical injury more likely, and increases the pressure to perform at peak levels for a long time. This all takes a toll on the mind and body of elite performers, and leave shadows that last well beyond the end of a player’s career.

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Nick Roberts, a physiotherapist at Steel City Physiotherapy in Sheffield who has treated plenty of athletes, highlights how this combination of stressors works to put players under ever-increasing amounts of pressure. As an amateur rugby league player himself, he is well aware of just how testing it can be to turn up regularly and be expected to perform.

“First of all there is the mental and emotional impact. We know that mental strain such as stress or sleep disturbance are big injury risk factors, and with curtailed off seasons this will be greater than ever,” he told  Betting.co.uk.

“In addition the acute chronic workload model also demonstrates increasing the amount of load in a short period of time increases injury risk, and we are seeing this at present with increased match frequency. Early signs are that there has been a great increase in muscular injuries with the greater demands on athlete’s bodies.

“It may be that we start to see more traumatic injuries to ligaments and bones as players are increasingly played fatigue. Further down the line these injuries subsequently increase an athlete’s probability of early osteoarthritis and therefore joint replacements.”

Elsewhere on Betting.co.uk, we have covered the issue of how many professionals in sports such as rugby union, football and rugby league are experiencing problems with dementia. Former players like Rob Burrow and Doddie Weir have also been struck down by MND too, something which some speculate may relate to their lengthy careers in elite level rugby league and rugby union respectively.

Physical and mental pressures

The physical pressures on elite athletes are more intense than at any point in history. Even a global pandemic has not brought top sport to a complete standstill. The pressure from broadcasters and the gambling industry for increasing amounts of top level sport to keep the bank balances ticking over is intense.

Players are not immune to seeking relief from stress with recourse to alcohol and drugs, something else that can cause huge problems both during and after a player’s career. Scott Moore, a rugby league player now at Swinto Lions who played in the NRL for North Queensland Cowboys and for England at the peak of his career, was sent to prison for 23 months in March 2018 after an extraordinary incident.

After a high-speed car chase across Greater Manchester, two police officers attempted to arrest Moore. He was tasered six times, but still fought violently with the officers for 50 minutes before he was finally subdued. He was reportedly intoxicated on a mixture of alcohol, cocaine and MDMA.

He explains that as he was not playing rugby at the time, he lost his sense of self, and drifted into dangerous patterns of behaviour.  He told the BBC: “I hit the booze too hard, one day just melted into another and before I knew it I was in the position I found myself in. I didn’t really notice anything wrong at the time, but looking back there were a few alarm bells ringing but I didn’t take notice of them.”

Back as a 16-year-old, Moore had been the youngest ever player to appear in Super League, when he made his debut for St Helens. That is young age to be subject to the physical and mental pressures of a professional combat sport like rugby league, and who knows what kind of toll it took on his mind and body.

Another rugby league star recently in the news for drug-related problems is Sam Burgess. While it would be wrong to dig more deeply into the issues that the ‘sparkly eyed man’ has faced recently, who is to say that the alleged drug, mental health and domestic violence issues were not caused, at least in part, by the punishing schedule he faced over many seasons as one of the NRL’s top players?

While the financial rewards for elite athletes are high in many cases, that is not true for every player. In any case, is a financial fortune really worth permanent physical injury? That is a question for the philosophers to answer rather than us here at Betting.co.uk, but athletes are entitled to the same level of health and safety care at work as anyone else.

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