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The impact of 'go hard or go home' on athlete wellbeing

Updated: 5 days ago

At the gym the other day I heard a trainer advise a gym member who had confessed to feeling low in energy and who was struggling to train, to, go-hard or go-home. This advice stopped me in my tracks; had I time-travelled back to a concrete-laden, basement gym in the ’70s where Arnie was pumping iron for four or five hours straight pushing himself to the edges of his physical limit? 


Jeremy McGovern on knees hands on head after injuring himself
Jeremy McGovern concedes his body has “let him down” the past couple years. From The West Australian, Samantha Rogers, Image: Paul Kane, Getty Images via AFL Photos

As a holistic care practitioner, I was intrigued that this training advice was still being used, not so much because it is mis-informative about how to train efficiently and effectively, but also because of the innuendo that one should ignore what their body is telling them and push through, otherwise they are not training hard enough and may as well, go home. 


Now, granted, I am not one to point fingers, as in my recent return to fitness after a long hiatus, I have endured numerous injuries. My body isn’t what it once was, and these injuries have piqued my curiosity about finding the right balance between pushing myself to the point of growth and not over-pushing. The challenge in this, I have realised, lies in my inability to gauge what is just enough, versus what is too much. That, and my innate drive to want to push myself to the edge to see what my capabilities are. 


This led me to consider whether all athletes or athletically-inclined individuals carry an innate ability to push through barriers that others cannot, or will not. My question is: is it near to impossible for an athlete to know when to stop, and is it their ability to push through that makes them champions and reach peak levels of performance?  


History of athlete wellbeing initiatives

As a juxtaposition, recently I have become increasingly aware that professional sporting bodies have athlete wellbeing and engagement initiatives. These initiatives have experienced increasing momentum since their inception in the late ‘90s. As per the Victorian Institute of Sport these initiatives, “are designed to support athletes in multiple facets of their lives, ensuring a holistic approach to their development and success.” 


Data from various studies and reports supports the effectiveness of these programs and highlight their positive impact on athletes' mental health and overall wellbeing. However, equally, various studies also continue to highlight alarming rates of mental health issues among athletes, exacerbated by pressures to perform, media scrutiny, culture, and organisational expectations.


Despite the implementation of these wellbeing initiatives, the question remains: are these programs truly effective? Do they address the systemic issues that drive athletes to push themselves beyond their limits at the expense of their wellbeing? Are they tackling the deeper issues that cause athletes to focus solely on their training while neglecting future career options and other aspects of their lives? Do these initiatives consider the innate drive for success and the nature of athletes to push their limits, and how this impacts their ability to engage in wellbeing practices? Unfortunately, I believe they do not. For this reason, I contend that these wellbeing strategies are ultimately doomed to fail, no matter how robust they appear. Let me explain why.


Go-hard or go-home mentality

The go-hard or go-home mentality, reflects a cultural ethos that is deeply embedded in Australian sporting identity. While this mindset fosters competitiveness and resilience, it can also contribute to significant challenges for athletes. The relentless pursuit of success may lead to overtraining, physical injuries, mental exhaustion and pushing through when ideally their bodies and minds need rest. This mentality has seen athletes push through injuries and continue training and playing despite being hurt. 


Moreover, the cultural expectation to push through pain or adversity without adequate rest or recovery can exacerbate the risk of burnout and long-term health issues. The Australian culture, which values toughness, resilience, and a "never give up" attitude, discourages or impedes a shift towards a more balanced approach that prioritises player wellbeing.


In Australian sport, huge respect is given for toughness and resilience – these qualities are seen as key to success. Many legendary Australian athletes are remembered for their toughness and ability to perform under duress. A recent example is the West Coast Eagles Australian Football League (AFL) player Jeremy McGovern, who over the weekend played a match with two broken ribs and a punctured lung. This was not the first time he played injured, in the 2018 Grand Final he had six injections on game day, and many prior in order to play; post match he was hospitalised for torn muscles off his hip and internal bleeding. Such role models set a rather scary precedent for aspiring athletes, who may feel compelled to emulate their perseverance.


Australian sports spectators play a critical part

Australian sports spectators relish watching athletes push through pain thresholds, and injuries in the name of winning, particularly when it involves an underdog triumphing. These types of behaviours are applauded and hailed as heroic.


Comments on Reddit regarding McGovern’s broken ribs and punctured lung included, "Grow up, Gov. Walk it off,” and “Give him a jab and send him back on, otherwise he's soft!” These attitudes and expectations can greatly influence athletes to ignore or downplay their pain and injuries and play on. No doubt, many athletes feel compelled to conform to these heralded ideals of toughness, afraid of criticism or disappointing fans, teammates and stakeholders if they display vulnerability or prioritise their health over performance. This dynamic creates a dilemma where athletes face internal and external pressures to push through pain thresholds, potentially disregarding their own wellbeing in pursuit of competitive success, and in favour of winning fans.


Additionally, spectators love the increased entertainment value that comes from the drama of athletes overcoming pain, playing in high-stakes where they push through injuries, and iconic moments when athletes are playing under extreme conditions, in fact at times spectators expect players to play tough and call out players who do self-care and who choose not to push themselves to the brink. Why? Perhaps, it’s that romanticised notion that athletes are super human, and seeing them exceed their body's pain threshold not only makes for good entertainment, but it inspires spectators to believe that anything is possible and creates a hit of feel good endorphins. 


Think about it, most iconic moments in sports history often involve athletes performing under extreme physical duress showcasing the power of human potential, it’s these moments that become legendary and contribute to the traditions of the sport, attracting fans and media attention.


What makes a champion, a champion? The media dictates.

Media portrayal can also reinforce this mentality. Athletes who exhibit grit and toughness are often celebrated as heroes, while those who prioritise recovery might face criticism or be seen as less serious about their sport. Media coverage often amplifies and sensationalises the drama of athletes pushing through pain, creating iconic moments that are replayed and remembered. This reinforcement through media further cements the excitement and admiration felt by spectators, creating a feedback loop.


The successful athlete relies on the push hard mentality

Despite the implementation of player wellbeing initiatives that attempt to debunk the mentality of pushing oneself as hard as possible, the go-hard or go-home attitude can still persist among athletes. This takes us back to the beginning of this article, after the gym trainer told the gym member to go-hard or go-home, the gym member forced himself to train even harder. Athletes often set high personal standards and goals – which is arguably what makes them elite – but which can lead to their own internalised pressure to meet their high standards and train intensely and continuously. 


Why athlete wellbeing initiatives are doomed to fail, unless...  

Changing the focus in elite sport to encourage athletes to not push themselves to their limits and actively care for their holistic wellbeing is a complex task. Elite athletes generally possess extraordinary levels of drive, determination, and the ability to push through pain and adversity, which is part of what makes an athlete, an athlete. This mentality can lead to remarkable achievements and breakthroughs in performance.  So when it comes to trying to change the paradigm and sporting culture surrounding the benefits of rest, recovery, self care and things that make for a holistic life it becomes difficult to create a sound argument. However, here are some things to consider:


The role of pushing limits in sport

Pushing limits is essential for the athlete to grow and those who challenge their limits often reach higher levels of physical and sporting capability. Historically, breakthroughs in sports science and breaking world records have been achieved by those athletes who pushed beyond their perceived limits. Without such efforts, we might not see the same level of human physical achievement. 


Risks of not pushing limits

Stagnation: If athletes avoid pushing their limits, they risk stagnation in their development. Innovation and improvement in sports often come from those willing to push boundaries and explore new possibilities.


Missed potential: Athletes who do not challenge their limits might not fully realise their potential. Many athletes achieve greatness by extending their capabilities and breaking through barriers, which can lead to unprecedented achievements. 


Success requires sacrifice: There is this idea in elite sport that the more one sacrifices, the bigger the success, this includes pushing physical and mental limits and this is a deeply ingrained belief. Athletes often see their struggles and sacrifices as part of what makes them successful. It’s the mythical hero’s journey.


A paradigm shift: Benefits of having a more equanimous and balanced approach

Pushing limits vs. recovery: If athletes consistently push through extreme efforts without adequate rest it leads to burnout, (serious) injuries, and long-term setbacks. While pushing limits is important, it must be balanced with appropriate recovery and self-care.


Strategic training: Elite athletes often employ a strategic approach to training that includes periods of intense effort balanced with rest and recovery. This method allows them to push their limits while also maintaining their health and wellbeing.


Optimal performance: There is growing research to show that pushing limits and incorporating recovery are both essential for peak performance. A well-rounded training regimen that includes both challenge and rest helps athletes achieve their full potential.


Human potential: The pursuit of limits, surprisingly, does not mean constant extreme efforts but rather a thoughtful approach to training that includes pushing boundaries while also ensuring recovery. This balance helps push the limits of human physical capability while safeguarding against the risks of overtraining.


The point we are currently at in sport is the deep necessity to find a balanced approach where athletes can safely push their limits, while allowing for both growth and recovery. This balance may prove yet to be more conducive to maximising one’s capabilities and reaching new heights in physical and sporting potential.


Changing the narrative of what makes a successful athlete

For change to happen it requires education and a shift in the cultural narrative so that more people understand that while the mentality of pushing oneself is crucial for success, achieving long-term success also depends on balancing this drive with adequate rest and wellbeing. This will however take time.

 

Elite athletes embrace a balanced approach

It’s not all doom and gloom, there are in more recent times a number of elite athletes who are demonstrating that a more balanced approach to their sport can lead to success. For instance, Simone Biles, one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, made a decision to prioritise her wellbeing over competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and demonstrated that it’s possible to balance elite performance with personal health and mental stability. Tom Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion, is known for his intense work ethic and competitive spirit, but he also emphasises a balanced approach to training and recovery, this reflects his belief that achieving peak performance requires more than just physical training.


As more athletes take the brave stance of standing up for their holistic wellbeing, and thus highlight that it is in fact possible to achieve excellence without succumbing to the extreme pressure that is associated with elite sports, then a shift in culture will inevitably occur. More people will see that success can be derived from a nuanced, balanced approach, one that includes enjoyment and mental wellbeing, and that the results can be just as effective as the relentless pursuit of limits.


This shift in narrative will, over time, trickle down into the grass roots level, and hopefully we'll also see a shift in spectator expectations of athletes, but also see a shift in the expectations that everyday fitness enthusiasts have on themselves. The traditional Australian sports culture has undoubtedly made it challenging to shift the mentality around pushing through limits. This culture significantly influences how athletes view injuries and how they view their successful performance. Good news is efforts are being made to change these deeply ingrained attitudes, but it will take time.


Reflecting on my own experience of injuries from pushing myself too hard during my recent return to fitness, I realise now that these setbacks were the wake up call I needed to force myself to rest. I think of the time-off training and decreased intensity that I have had to take through these injuries and then the consequent losses in conditioning that I now need to re-coup, and it just wasn't worth it. This forced time off has made me rethink the balance between pushing myself and kindly allowing myself rest, and then not beating myself up when I take such rest. This journey has taught me the importance of self-awareness and choosing self-care over adhering to old ideas about pushing through. By listening to our bodies and prioritising wellbeing, we can each play a part in redefining success in a way that promotes long-term health, performance and overall wellbeing.




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This article is authored by Nicole Sultana, who holds a Post Graduate Degree in Spiritual Care, a Post Graduate Certificate in Business (Marketing), and a Bachelor of Applied Science in Sports Science/Human Movement. In addition, she is a Certified Therapeutic Sound Practitioner and a Death Doula. Nicole is the founder of Sound Consciousness, a company that offers wellbeing strategies and therapeutic sound practices to help individuals achieve peak performance in their professional lives, relationships, and personal aspirations.


If you found this article interesting, please leave a comment below and share it with others who might find it beneficial. Sharing our experiences helps us all learn, grow, and heal together. We welcome lively discussions, as they contribute to our multifaceted humanity. Let's remember to approach discussions with respect and kindness at heart.



Did you know that Sound Therapy can play a role in athlete recovery?

By promoting relaxation and reducing stress, which are crucial for healing and performance, sound therapy helps to lower cortisol levels, enhance mood, and improve sleep quality. These benefits facilitate faster muscle recovery, reduce inflammation, and boost overall mental wellbeing. Incorporating sound therapy into an athlete’s recovery regimen can provide a holistic approach to managing the physical and psychological demands of training and competition, ultimately supporting optimal performance and longevity in sport.


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