The Sport/Health Paradox

Picture this.

A wide receiver cathes a football. He is heading down the field with would-be tacklers hot on his heels. If he scores the touchdown, the game is over and his team wins. If he doesn’t cross the goal line, his team is defeated and their season is over.

As he is running, there is a slight burning sensation in the back of his left leg. He continues to run, and the burning turns into an aching pain – which turns into a shooting pain down the entire left side of his body. With every step, it feels like his hamstrings are going to tear from their origins.

So what is a player to do?

I think most people would say that injuries and pain are just a part of sports, and in a sense I agree with that. If anyone is pushing themselves to be at the top of their game and play at an extreme level, there are going to be aches, pains, bruises etc. that just come with participating in a sport. That’s the nature of the beast – the potential for damage.

So back to our player for SCENARIO 1

If he crosses the end line and scores, but tears his hamstrings in the process, he is a hero nonetheless. Sure, he can’t walk on his own and needs to be carried off the field, but he accomplished what he set out to do and should be awarded as a top notch performer. The fact that he sacrificed himself to win for the team – he could be heralded as the performer of the year.

Hold that thought for a second, as we’ll get back to it….


The wide receiver realizes his leg is going to experience some major damage if he keeps up the pace and intensity he is currently operating at, so he lays off a bit. Unfortunately, the opposing team has caught up to him and tackled him before he reaches the end line. Game over. Other team wins.

But his hamstrings are still attached.

So we have two scenarios, both with outcomes that have positives and negatives associated with them. Here is the question…

Which scenario was the healthier one?

For the sake of this discussion, let’s keep mental health out of this post and focus solely on the physical aspects. I bring up these 2 scenarios because many times the thought is that sports = health. If you play sports your are healthy, or if you play a sport you will get healthy. From Scenario 1 above, I’d say playing the sport was detrimental to his health. Muscle tore from bone…that isn’t healthy.

If we look at the reports coming from media outlets such as ESPN and other sports programming, we see the impact that sports can have on a player’s health in the long term. Broken bones, torn ligaments, sprain, strains, concussions…they all have a negative impact on a person’s physical health both short and long term.

Many times when I am consulting with people, they bring up a sport that they are using to be/get healthy. The conversation may go something like this:

Me: What is your main goal?

Them: To get healthy

Me: What do you feel will get you to your goal?

Them: Well, I want to add some strength training into my routine because I get in cardio by playing tennis two times a week and basketball two times a week. But I’m not sure if I can add in the strength training because my knees hurt, and my back is tight, and (add your favorite injury here).

Me: Is it possible that the sports you are playing are contributing to your aches and pains?

Them: I suppose so. I never thought of that…

I can’t blame them for not having thought of that, because the majority of the time people are told sports = health. I can tell you that the majority of my injuries over the years (and believe me, I’ve had my share) have come from sports I played throughout my life. Not from progressive resistance training, not from a structured aerobic program, not yoga. They came from the hours and hours spent on the field (soccer) and on the courts (tennis and basketball).

My last post discussed my interaction with some hard gravel during rec softball. You can read it here if you missed it.

Now don’t get me wrong – there are many positive things about sports. Whether it is learning about sacrificing self for the team, character building, perseverance, the importance of practice…the list can go on and on. I’m not here to bash sports, as I love them.

My point is this: Playing sports is not the same as being healthy. Many times, we sacrifice health for the sport.

The player in Scenario 2 may not have scored the touchdown, but he just may have saved himself a lot of pain by focusing on his long term health and not short term glory.

The glory will fade. Your health lasts a lifetime.