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Better support structures are needed if athletics is to be sustainable

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There is a need for better support structures if elite sport is to attain a balance between a short-term focus on results and a long-term perspective that protects the health of athletes. This is shown by a dissertation based on four years of research with athletics trainers in Gothenburg.

The Gothenburg Athletics Club has produced several world champions over the years. But there is also a murky side to elite sport, with problems such as burnout and injuries. To encourage elite trainers to find new innovative working methods that improve the mental and physical health of elite athletes as well as producing top performances over time, the Gothenburg Athletics Club launched a development project in partnership with the University of Gothenburg.

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Portrait of John Dohlsten.
John Dohlsten.
Photo: Richard Bloom.

“Elite trainers need to be capable of navigating between a short-term focus on results and long-term development. To attain top results, athletes need to push themselves to their ultimate limit. This risks leading to burnout and injury. Besides personal suffering, it also means lost time. And athletes need to be healthy in order to perform anyway. It isn’t a choice. The focus on results and long-term development have to both be there every step of the way,” says John Dohlsten, lecturer and external PhD student in sports science at the Department of Food and Nutrition and Sport Science.

John Dohlsten has spent four years working with elite athletics trainers. They started with a “blank page” and together explored how trainers can develop and which skills they need.

“Elite trainers need forums where they can meet to discuss the dilemmas and problems they encounter day to day. Our discussions enabled us to see which skills the trainers lacked, and we set up conferences and even a university course based around this,” John Dohlsten explains.

John Dohlsten has identified several success factors in the athletics environment in Gothenburg, but also limitations in the structure within which the trainers work. The success factors are:

  • There is a great deal of openness among elite trainers towards sharing, reflection and discussion. In Gothenburg, this is made easier thanks to the athletics centre Friidrottens Hus, an arena which brings people together.
  • The elite trainers have an inner drive and are used to looking for new knowledge and developing new forms of training.
  • The elite trainers have a caring approach to the athletes and foster their development, health and wellbeing.

At the same time, there are structures that work against a long-term perspective.

  • There are no clear requirements for elite trainers, for example, such as having completed particular training.
  • The recruitment of elite trainers tends to be random.
  • Elite trainers do not have job security and their status rests on the results of their athletes.
  • Funding is results-based, which leads to sportspeople and trainers focusing on short-term results.
  • There is a lack of resources, structures and time for trainer development.

“If we are to bring more trainers through to the top level and continue to produce world-class athletes, we need to put better support structures in place for the professional development of elite trainers and provide opportunities for elite trainers to network and interact with other elite trainers on an ongoing basis,” says John Dohlsten.

Sustainable elite athletics

John Dohlsten is a PhD student at the Department of Food and Nutrition and Sport Science.  On 11 December he will be defending his dissertation What enables and limits sustainable elite athletics? Action research in elite sports practices at Gothenburg Athletics Club.