The price of gold – how bad do you really want it?

„If it feels too good, then it’s wrong“, says Christian Olsson, a famous Swedish triple jumper in his interview for a documentary called „The Price of Gold“.  With this sentence Olsson states that practices and exercises shouldn’t feel comfortable and enjoyable – because then they won’t make you better.


The film in question talks about Swedish track and field athletes  who have brought numerous medals and fame to their country at the price of severe injuries and years lost to rehabilitation.  I was  following Olsson’s career with great interest when I was a teenager and the thing I remember best is that during those rare moments when he was competing without any injuries, I was literally holding my breath that nothing bad would happen.

Besides well-known Swedes in this documentary, the movie also introduces  young prospective athletes who have only just begun their career and yet are struggling with serious injuries that can end their  road to success before it even begins.

When I first saw this movie, so many conflicting thoughts came to my mind – about coaches who have questionable training methods; about the ridiculous idea that if you are not injured, you don’t try enough; about how far one can go for his/her ambitions. Now, 3 years later, I’m working  with young athletes and have a new point of view…

…How bad do you want it?

So you think you are an athlete. Or you want to become one. You go to practices regularly, do what the coach says, taste the sweetness of the wins and bitterness of the losses, you have fans (your family and friends), you watch your idols and dream about being at the same level as them in the future. That is all very nice. But do you really want to become an athlete enough to:

– give up on things?

Do you want it bad enough to skip going to movies with your friends and use the evening off for necessary rehabilitation procedures? To miss a prom in order to take the extra practice? To read some books about nutrition instead of playing videogames? To stop posting motivational pictures and actually go running in the pouring rain? To replace fries and chicken nuggets with vegetables and high-protein meals? To go to sleep early instead of watching a good movie?

– put individual effort in addition to things your coaches tell you to do?

It’s one thing to be a diligent sportsman, but another thing entirely is to go the extra mile: your time, dedication, your own presence in your training. Your body is a tool and you shouldn’t count only on medical staff or coaches to keep that tool in perfect condition. Are you willing to take time to get to know yourself, learn your weaknesses and work on them outside the practices? In „Price of Gold“ they show Carolina Klüft performing a depth jump from the hurdle just a day before the World Championship and getting injured after landing poorly. Trusting your coach is one thing but following him/her blindly can lead to a bad outcome. Critical thinking and knowledge of many aspects in your sport makes you a better athlete.

– feel uncomfortable?

“Anyone who says being an elite athlete is good for you is nuts” says Susanna Kallur while  talking about the things she has been through. As an athlete, you must put your body through things that „normal“ people would never do. In addition, you also push your mind through thoughts and situations that are uncomfortable to most of us. Depression, severe insecurity, anxiety – these are all conditions that can occur during your career. Elite sports is not for average people.

–  get hurt?

Yes, you have done it all: given up on unhealthy habits and taken care of your body in every possible way. However, even though lots of injuries can be prevented, bad postures corrected and individual weaknesses compensated for, elite sport will never be completely injury-free. Susanna Kallur shows a hideous scar on her right shin, which was the cause of a horrible infection. Are you willing to start everything all over again? To take an extra 3 hours per day for rehabilitation? To go through surgeries without knowing if they will really help you?

Is winning priceless?

Watch the scenes where Klüft throws up after an uphill sprint and Eric Sundlöf moves around in a wheelchair  – the price of gold is bearing the routine and giving your best even when you dont feel like it. Are you ready for it?

If you want it really bad, all the things above should not seem like sacrifices but rather the choices you really want to make. Regardless of all the injuries these top Swedes suffered from, they all say: giving up was never an option!  At the end of the day, winning an olympic medal is something not everyone can brag about

Film link:

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Squat misconception #2: Squats hurt the lower back

Cook squat 5Lower back injuries can be both acute and chronic, from muscle spasms, pinched nerves and muscle tears to tendon and ligament strains, intervertebral disc slips or bone fractures. It’s very hard to distinguish acute from chronic injuries since many factors influnce back pain. Very often, lower back specialists say that back injuries occur progressively as a result of long-term dysfunction of the adjacent body parts and the core itself.

In this article, I would like to share some of my thoughts and practical advice on how to improve squatting technique and prevent lower back injuries.

  1. Learn how to breathe and brace

The breathing techinque is a crucial element for core muscle activation, overall core stability and health. During the inhalation, intra-abdominal pressure raises and the belly should expand in the front and on the side. The muscles around the core canister (multifidi, QL, obliques, TrA and rectus) together with the pelvic floor muscles and immensly important diaphragm contract together in order to brace, therefore providing an optimal environment for lower back safety. Stand up and place your palms around the core. If you feel your chest coming up while your belly is not pushing your hands away, you need to work on your breathing mechanics. A simple way to improve the quality of your breathing pattern while squatting is explained in this tutorial video.

  1. Develop appropriate mobility

The human body is structured perfectly so we can easily roll, walk, jump and run. Optimal mobility is mandatory to produce the force through the movements in our joints (i.e. ankles, knees and hips). Everyday lifestyle, especially too much sitting, can lead to stiff ankles, hips and thoracic spine. When people lose hip or t-spine mobility, they start to compensate by overusing the lower back to produce the force. Over some period of time (depending on ones ability to withstand the stress) it is very possible that a person will develop lower back pain. In this video Kelly Starrett explains several exercises for improving hip mobility.

  1. Maintain mobility and soft tissue suppleness

If you understand and accept the ‘mobility concept’ and you develop appropriate mobility in your ankles, hips, t-spine and shoulders, maintain mobility by performing different full body exercises on a daily basis. The overhead squat (as in the photo above) is definitely one of the best exercises to maintain proper full body mobility. Furthermore, before exercising, unglue your soft tissues with different self myo-fascial release techniques and stretching.

  1. Strive for technical proficiency

Is it hard to recognize faulty squatting mechanics? No. It is very easy to notice poor feet position, caved in knees and an over-arched back. When squatting, keep your feet pointed forward (or slightly opened), shove your knees towards the little toe, brace your core and squeeze your fists or whatever you’re holding (barbell, dumbbells, medicine ball). The tension will provide even more stability, not just in the core but in the shoulders, knees and feet as well. Look straight ahead to maintain a good head position (neutral spine).

  1. Set the appropriate load

All the aforementioned advice means nothing if we overload the bar on the weighted squat. The catch is quite simple, a person thinks he/she is able to lift more weight on the following set. It is possible that their legs can lift up a bit more weight, but the more important question is: CAN HIS/HER CORE WITHSTAND THE LOAD ON THE SPINE AND SOFT TISSUES AROUND IT? So, when you go for your PB on weighted squats, listen to your core rather than your legs.

 As you can see, performing squats in a safe manner is a complex task. But in order to stay healthy and far from lower back injuries, you need to take into account the aforementioned suggestions. Preventing back pain will not just make your exercising possible, but everyday activities more comfortable and enjoyable too.

Posted in exercise physiology, sport medicine | 1 Comment

Children with disabilities and the role of exercise in their life

Through several articles in this blog, I have tried to support the importance of physical activity and exercise in our life. More specifically, in one of my previous articles I tried to show the enormous impact of electronic smart devices in our personal and social lives. It photo for disable kidsis this technological trend in particular that encourages kids to become ever more sedentary in our fast paced world. Some people however live their lives in a way that is completely unknown to most of us. I am talking about people with disabilities, who live next to us, share the same fears, expectations, and ambitions in life as we do. Waking up this morning and being in a great mood, I want to raise the fact that the benefits of physical activity and exercise are universal for all children, including those with disabilities.

Although individuals with disabilities have made significant gains throughout the last decades, they still face pervasive inequalities in opportunities for physical activity. In fact, children with disabilities participate less in competitive and recreational sports compared to their non-disabled peers. The first international effort targeting the promotion of personal and social well being of children with disabilities began with the first competitive sporting event for individuals with disabilities back in 1948, followed by the first Paralympics competition in 1960. Since then, and until these days, The Special Olympics is the largest recreational program for children with intellectual disabilities, with more than 1 million athletes from 125 countries. However, despite these international efforts, children with disabilities have lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, lower levels of muscular endurance, and higher rates of obesity than typical children. In addition, the rate for depression, low self-esteem and confidence episodes are higher in children with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers. Children with disabilities are often not encouraged to have active lives and in fact they tend to follow sedentary lives with greater health problems, leading to more physical activity barriers often resulting in complete social withdrawal.

Several previous studies have supported the beneficial role of exercise and sport participation in children with disabilities. Regular physical activity is essential for the maintenance of normal flexibility, muscle strength, joint structure and function and may slow the functional decline often associated with disabling conditions (1). Furthermore, adequate levels of muscular strength and endurance are associated with increased bone mass, reduction in injury from falls, and a greater ability of children with disabilities to complete activities of daily living (2). Sports participation also enhances the psychological well-being of children with disabilities through the provision of opportunities to form friendships, express creativity, develop a self-identity, and foster meaning and purpose in life (3). Moreover, Special Olympics athletes have showed heightened self-esteem, perceived physical competence, and peer acceptance when compared with non-participants (4). Lastly, participation in regular physical activity can foster independence, coping abilities, competitiveness, and teamwork among children with disabilities (5). Going through the scientific literature, I also found an ongoing research study that will provide us with a clear insight of the effects of sports participation on the health of children and adolescents with a chronic disease or physical disability. And this is going to be the first complete study examining the multidimensional effects of exercise in children with disabilities.

Few months ago, I had the opportunity to watch the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships hosted in Doha, Qatar. I had the chance to watch individuals with different disabilities from all around the world competing at a high level. I felt proud for them and I admired their effort, as I usually do when I watch people performing their best either physically or mentally. I also had the chance to speak with some athletes from the Greek National team. They took me back in time, since their concerns and goals were very similar to mine when I was competing at a high level as a track and field athlete. Their approach to life showed me that despite their disabilities they have learned to set goals, work hard to achieve them and above all keep a positive spirit whatever life brings them.

My final message to children with disabilities must be strong and very clear. Physical activity, exercise and social interaction are parts of life that belong to all of us despite our current or future condition. Find your own unique way to stay physically active and be around people who appreciate and respect you as a person. Take examples from other individuals who, despite their disabilities, have achieved great things in life. Just give the best of yourself and you will surely get something amazing in return.

Posted in exercise physiology, sport & exercise psychology, sport medicine | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Wearing the same shirts doesn’t make a team” – the phenomenon of team cohesion in sports

teamwork1What is this so-called team cohesion that everyone is talking about in the field of sport lately? As the above quote states, it is apparently not enough to be wearing the same t-shirts, to have the same team name and to be training in the same facilities, no, there is more to a team than that.

German football coach Joachim Löw seemed well aware of this fact and accommodated his players in Campo Bahia for the FIFA world cup 2014 in Brazil. The world watched curiously while “Löw’s boys” stayed together in shared-flat-like huts, were asked to spend their free time together as a team and went on teambuilding excursions.

What is team cohesion?

There are two kinds of team cohesion: social cohesion and task cohesion. Social cohesion means that the team likes to spend time together and that its members have relationships outside the court, the pitch, the field or the rink. Team members respect and like each other, they trust one another and generally feel like a unit. Task cohesion is related to the task at hand, meaning the sport. Members are aware of their role on the team, feel that they can show off their strengths and know how they can contribute to the success of the team.

What are ‘teambuilding’ interventions?

Naturally, coaches and players want to increase their team’s success and the players’ satisfaction and thus inquire about teambuilding interventions with sport psychology consultants. In the literature, a team building intervention is described as “a method of helping the group to (a) increase effectiveness, (b) satisfy the needs of its members, or (c) improve work conditions”. Of course it is of great interest if team building interventions have an effect on sport performance. To assess this relationship, a meta-analysis of a total of 46 studies on this topic was conducted, including almost 10.000 athletes of more than 1000 sport teams. The results of this study showed that in the sport context, cohesiveness does in fact have an exceptionally strong relationship with sport performance. Both aforementioned types of cohesion are equally important in this context: it has been found that both social and task cohesion have a moderate to large effect on team performance. However, teambuilding interventions need to last longer than just a couple of days to be effective; teams actually need to work on their cohesion for weeks and even months to really reap the rewards on the team’s sport performance.

How to increase team cohesion?

After having read about the positive effects of team cohesion, you might want to know, how to actually increase the cohesion of a team. Well, you are in luck: experts in the field name one variable that has been closely linked to team cohesion and can be worked on: role clarity. It is essential in a team that its members have clarity with regard to their own role. Obviously, team members need to be aware of their official position on the team. Are they a forward? A point guard? A setter? A quarterback? Besides these official playing positions and roles, players also need to know what the coach and the other team members further expect from them. Are they expected to motivate the group in their position as an informal leader next to the captain? Are they wanted to speak to the media after games? Is it desired that they mediate between individual players due to their communicative skills? Every season, teams should take some time and invest some effort into writing down or at least talking about what they expect of the individual team members with regard to their formal and informal roles and tasks. Additionally, each team member has to consider whether they can fulfill the expectations that are placed upon them. If there is role clarity within a team and the individual members accept their roles, then you are on a good path to a cohesive team.

Cohesion in other settings

It is important to mention that team cohesion is not only important in the competitive sport setting, but also in the exercise, the rehabilitation and the prevention sector. It has for example been found that team building interventions go along with a higher experienced effort in exercise classes for adults and with a higher attendance and satisfaction in the youth sport setting.

Were the aforementioned teambuilding activities the reason why the German team won the FIFA world cup 2014? I might be too biased to answer this question, being a German myself. However, what I can say with certainty is that the team’s spirit in Brazil was high, the players supported each other through thick and thin, played a great tournament – and won (sorry to rub it in…). Therefore, we should all take the following quote by Babe Ruth, a former professional baseball player, to heart: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the team won’t be worth a dime.”


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Our best wishes for 2016


From all of us here in AAP we are wishing you a healthy and happy new year! Our goals for this year is to stay in touch with all of our readers and to produce more articles for you. Have a great time and a great year ahead.

From the AAP team

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