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The downside of being a competitive athlete

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My RehabNazi, who is overseeing my pt with iron fists and even more iron weights managed to look up at me struggling with lifting my leg a few inches off the floor with just a 1lb weight attached to the ankle and saw that I was in enough physical pain to have started involuntary emission of tears.

"Why didn't you tell me to stop?" she snarled. (this woman has two settings: Snarling and shouting, neither of which really works with me)

"You said I had to do as many reps as possible."

"I meant until it, say, STARTED HURTING ENOUGH SO THAT ANY SANE PERSON WOULD STOP MOVING!!!" So we're back to shouting.

"I told you in the beginning, I have a skewed perception of what constitutes hurting enough to stop. I was an Olympic hopeful as a teen."

"Oh? Well, tell me sooner next time." Snarl.

Everybody always keeps going on and on about the benefits of exercise for children and teenagers (and adults, really). Nobody ever talks about the downsides.

For one, if you're into more than one sport, like I used to be, there are confusing and contrary instructions and messages. My fencing instructor always wanted me to eat more and keep building mass so I might also build some height and get past the magic 5'5" mark (took me until I was 15 to get there even though my parents aren't short). My martial arts instructor, on the other hand, wanted me to keep my weight down as much as I could so I'd stay in the lightest weight class possible for my height.

Another thing is that, as seriously competitive athletes, you're taught to ignore and even switch off certain warning signs such as the dizziness of hypoglycemia or the muscle weakness indicating overtraining of a certain muscle group. This leads to injuries, sure, but more importantly it leads to RESULTS and being a SUCCESS, and that's a lot more important in most athletes' books than being healthy. Who cares if you're fainting after practice, or if your BP is one step above a comatose person's, you're a WINNER!

That's the final, and perhaps most devastating realization of all: Nobody really cares if what you're doing is healthy. There is counseling- on how to overcome obstacles, and how to win. You're basically taught and forced to stick to disordered eating. You're pushing your body beyond its limits on a regular schedule and do everything within the realm of allowed medicine to keep it going when it breaks down, no matter the consequences.

Being a competitive athlete as a teen isn't about health- it's about results, and winning.

And that is just plain sad.

I loved competing and training though. I can see the downsides now, when I was working toward becoming an Olympic level fencer there wasn't much you could say to deter me from what I thought/felt I needed to do to get there. I competed on broken bones, sprained joints, with a 103 degree fever, after shoving an epi-pen into my thigh because I'd been stung by a wasp... These ARE the more extreme examples, but basically, what it boiled down to was: You're alive, you can move, you compete. I felt amazing and invincible, sort of like a superhero at that time. I could do things others couldn't even think of doing. It was all mind over matter, and it was so much fun to test the limits of my mind's abilities (I rarely got to anywhere else).

I'm still reaping both the disadvantages and the benefits of this time in my life. The ability to concentrate through even the most annoying distractions (construction, someone blasting nyan cat...), keeping cool under pressure, enhanced reflexes, going on when normally my body would just give up. The injury I'm rehabbing, not knowing when to quit, missing an "Off switch", often thinking I should dial back my food intake even further, needing to be perfect at whatever I do, frustration at hard limits I can't overcome with mind over matter...

There are two sides to everything. I think that with competitive athlete teens, the media tends to spin the most positive story possible. I just wanted to put some things into perspective.

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