Well, for starters lets talk about Food and Nutrition.
One of the things that has annoyed me in the past is when someone contacts me asking for training in a specific competitive sport because they want to become a professional athlete and I start asking them questions about their diet and nutrition - which are extremely important questions when it comes professional sports because of how competitive it is.
And the response, quite often, is that they don't think their nutrition is an important factor in their sports career. Not their exact words, but basically they downplay how important nutrition is. Which I take to be a clue that their level of nutrition isn't very good and they don't want to admit it.
To use a racing car analogy, poor nutrition would be like putting sub-standard fuel into a race car that runs on high performance octane (usually 94 or higher). You don't really expect the car using sub-standard gasoline to win if you know everyone else in the race is using high performance octane, do you?
So to me, the question of the differences between amateur athletes and professional athletes is a case of food. Food equals fuel. And if you want your body to be a high performance machine then it needs to be using high performance fuel.
Amateur athletes often totally ignore the quality of their nutrition.
Professional athletes take their nutrition very seriously.
I have a book on my shelf, one of my favourites, called "High Performance Sports Conditioning", edited by Bill Foran. It was published in 2001, but not much has changed in the world of sports conditioning during the last 15 years. I highly recommend finding a copy of if your goal is to be participating in professional sports. During chapter one it discussed 'Establishing a Solid Fitness Base' and talks about athletes building a Team of Support Staff including:
- Athletic Trainer or Coach (that is my job)
- Sport Nutritionist (to advise on nutritional issues)
- Sport Physical Therapist (for treatment of injuries)
- Physician (in case of serious injuries)
Having these people found in advance is an advantage because what if a situation arises and you, for example, break your leg, and you don't even have a family doctor. Instead you are going to walk-in clinics where you get random doctors who are barely out of medical school and have no experience with sports injuries.
Find these people in advance, and then begin training.
Amateur athletes won't think that will need a team of support staff, and thus won't bother to get them. That means no coaching, no nutritional advice, they might have a family doctor but not necessarily a doctor familiar with sports injuries, and they definitely won't have a physical therapist who specializes in sports injuries.
Coaching obviously is going to be a big factor as well. Coaching doesn't necessarily happen every day however. It might be once per week or even once every two weeks. Coaches are usually also available via phone or email to answer questions the athlete might have.
As athletic trainers go coaches fulfill three important roles:
#1. Knowledge Base - to provide the athlete with a plethora of knowledge in their chosen sport with respect to learning how to best achieve results during competition, how to train towards specific goals, what exercises to be doing, any cross-training to be doing, how to create a training schedule, etc.
#2. Motivational Guidance - the coach is there to keep the athlete motivated, to keep trying harder in order to succeed.
#3. Mental Game - some athletes develop problems mentally and lose focus on what they are supposed to be doing. In archery for example professional archers will sometimes develop problems like "Target Panic" which is an anxiety that causes them to become anxious and then shoot too soon when they are not ready yet, or also "Gold Shy" is when an archer starts deliberately missing unconsciously or subconsciously. It is the coaches job to be part psychologist and cure the athlete of any mental problems they might be facing.
Note - My solutions to both of the above two problems is to either take a break from normal shooting and practice doing something different for fun (like shooting at moving targets), or to deliberately make the challenge harder so that the archer is forced to concentrate more.
Lastly, professional athletes Practice and Train 3 to 5 days per week, depending on their sport, and use their off days to rest and recuperate. This process of Training, Resting, Training, Resting, Training, Resting, Training, etc is continuous and allows for peak muscle growth and helps prevent sports injuries like repetitive strain.
People often think that professional athletes Train, Train, Train or Practice, Practice, Practice - however that is a bit of a misunderstanding. It is more of a Train, Rest, Practice, Rest process.
An amateur who doesn't know what they are doing might simply practice every day until they exhausted or hurt themselves. That might make logical sense to them at the time, but once they learn the horrors of the first serious sports injury they will either quit the sport or rethink how they are training.
This means the professional athlete makes a Training Schedule.
Lets say for example you are a competitive compound archer. Using the above order of training, what should your 4 week training schedule be?
Sunday Training at Gym, Monday Rest, Tuesday Practice at Archery Range, Wednesday Rest, Thursday Training at Gym, Friday Rest, Saturday Practice at Archery Range.
Sunday Rest, Monday Training at Gym, Tuesday Rest, Wednesday Practice at Archery Range, Thursday Rest, Friday Training at Gym, Saturday Rest.
Sunday Practice at Archery Range, Monday Rest, Tuesday Training at Gym, Wednesday Rest, Thursday Practice at Archery Range, Friday Rest, Saturday Training at Gym.
Sunday Rest, Monday Practice at Archery Range, Tuesday Rest, Wednesday Training at Gym, Thursday Rest, Friday Practice at Archery Range, Saturday Rest.
Week 5 = Start over at 1.
Now the above training schedule is just an example of one way a person could create a training schedule. There are literally thousands of different training schedules for hundreds of different sports online available for free.
Often a training schedule will also have dates set aside for specific events, such as competitions. In the example marathon training schedule below there are dates set aside for specific marathons and events like the "National 1/2 Marathon", or the "Cherry Blossom 10 Mile", or the "Flying Pig Marathon".
Depending on the sport it is a good idea to be training with the best equipment you can find. This often means equipment that is more expensive, more durable, less likely to have problems, more adaptable, easier to use, etc.
Having the most expensive / "best" equipment isn't always a necessity however. In the world of competitive weightlifting for example it doesn't matter whether your weights are homemade or made of solid gold, 50 lbs is still 50 lbs regardless of what it is made of.
Thus for people on a budget they should be thinking in terms of the necessities. eg. A marathon runner will want a good pair of shoes and a source of water at intervals during practice runs. (Tip, if you plan your jogging route along Starbucks they give out free water. All you have to do is ask for it.) Nobody cares what the marathon runner is wearing, so any old pair of pants or shorts and a t-shirt will do. Wearing skin tight breathable fashion is not a necessity and if anything you will look silly wearing that when you are not in an actual marathon.
This is just a brief overview of the differences between professional athletes and amateur athletes. The following are just a few of the fundamental differences between those athletes who take seriously what they are doing and those who simply don't care, and thus are really just amateurs. That perhaps is the most fundamental difference of all. Professional athletes take everything seriously. Amateurs do not.
- Food and Nutrition
- Team of Support Staff, including Coaching
- Train, Rest and Practice + Training Schedule
- Professional Equipment
There is one last thing unfortunately... Money. You may have noticed that buying nutritional food is more expensive than buying sugary and fatty foods. Coaching is likewise expensive, as is having support staff even if you only talk to them once per month. Having all that training time might mean you don't have time for a normal 9 to 5 job either, so having money saved up so you can have time off to train is a necessity too. And of course money for equipment. Some sports are very expensive. Others less so. You might need to buy gym memberships, club memberships, etc to get access to equipment that is too expensive to buy normally, or you might decide you absolutely need that equipment so you can use it all the time - in which case it might be very expensive.
Also please note that most professional athletes (with the exclusion of team sports like baseball, hockey, football, soccer, tennis, golf, cycling, etc) don't actually make a lot of money in their chosen field. Some do because they are well paid members of a team, but most sports don't have a lot of big sponsors and thus the prize money is a lot smaller.
Thus if you manage to win some prize money that money will probably go right back into your budget for food, coaching, equipment, etc. Don't expect to be making a living off the sport.
Note - This is probably why gambling is such a problem in many professional sports. An athlete who deliberately loses can sometimes make more money losing than they can by winning. eg. Boxers taking a dive. Even big name events like the Olympics are rife with gambling, although it isn't often talked about.
Thus if you are getting into a competitive sport you really should be doing it for the right reasons. To try and attain that goal. Trying to do it for lesser reasons like greed isn't going to help you. Greed is only going to hold you back from what should be your real goal: Attaining Perfection.
Sportsmanship and Giving Back to the Community
It is my personal opinion that a true athlete should also at least attempt to be a good sportsman, to be generous and kind to their fellow athletes, and to give back to the sports community by donating their time and effort towards causes that helps the sport.
They should also admonish activities that give the sport a bad reputation, like fighting on the ice in hockey, or dentist bowhunters who poach lions for kicks, or cyclists who resort to using steroids in order to win the Tour de France. Such behaviour needs to be admonished and discouraged so that younger generations of athletes know and understand that the sport should not be defined by a few bad eggs who are violent, immoral and cheat.
Sometimes one of the best things a famed athlete can do is to simply show up, sign autographs and shake the hands of a younger generation.
If you want to read more articles like this please subscribe to CardioTrek.ca or bookmark this page and come back for more. The above post is Part One of a new series of posts about Training for Professional Athletes.