• Dr. Richard McIlmoyle BSc, DC, PgCPain

Use the tricks Elite athletes use to get ahead!

Updated: Oct 24

It is a common practice to put people up on pedestals. Movie stars, musicians and athletes are placed there. We then try to emulate the actions they took to become successful or to stay successful. It very common in sport that, if a successful athlete is seen trying a new training technique or new form of therapy, it is mimicked by other elite athletes and everything eventually trickles down to the recreational athletes.

If we can easily see that intervention, like kinesiotape or cupping marks that Michael Phelps made famous during the Olympics a few years back, it drives the general public’s interest in the intervention. Which then leads to the belief that “If it’s good enough for an Olympian it must be the best intervention, therefore I want it”.

What’s the problem here?

The intervention is likely making a miniscule difference in the athlete’s performance, which is enough to give them the edge they need in the ultracompetitive elite realm. AND…It is likely working through a complex mixture of cognitive and biological mechanisms rather than the overly simplistic story being told by the practitioner applying the therapy. The effects for the athlete are probably best explained in a similar manner to how the superstitions that many have surrounding pre-race/pre-game rituals or “lucky” equipment work, and we don’t emulate those quirks, do we?

Why should I be writing a blog post about all of this?

I have become concerned with how the narrative is flawed but given weight by the “authority” of those using it. This has the potential to be harmful to the recreational athlete because many of these stories about how the interventions work create one of the following scenarios…

A sense of fragility,


A need to be “fixed”


A dependence on the therapy/practitioner in order to function without the pain that drove them to seek treatment in the first place.

I have recently spent some time listening to former elite athletes and those that train them. I have noticed another thing that many elite athletes do that perhaps we should spend more time admiring and emulating rather than the silly tape and cups.

There are parallels between performance thoughts/beliefs and pain thoughts/beliefs. What I hear discussed in the performance realms surrounding cognitive training is consistent with what has become known as the biopsychosocial framework for human disease (1). Attaining performance goals require an approach that encompasses all the aspects of the human attempting to achieve goals of elite physical performance. Not only does the athlete have to train their body to have the physiological capabilities for their sport, but they also need to work on their cognitions about what they are capable of achieving. They need to have a supporting system of trainers, coaches, fellow athletes that all create a belief structure that they can achieve their goals. These beliefs and thoughts create different states in the physiology of the body. We are an integrated system…

Henry Ford is credited with saying

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right”

Understanding these principles regarding the interactions of thoughts, beliefs and physiology are crucial to become good at helping people achieve their goals, whether they be athletes trying to win races or people suffering with painful conditions trying to return to an activity they love, like playing with their grandchildren. In essence I believe we should change our focus on what aspect of support we emulate from our elite athletes. Throw out the coloured tape, the cups, the “insert next fad here” and focus on maximizing the positive effects we can have with proper support through education, cognitive restructuring and supported self-management for people who have both acute and persistent pain issues. Through my courses we explore the actions we can take as practitioners to better integrate the research on BPS and related frameworks, as well as physiology and cognitions, how to educate and help people attain their goals. 1.Engel GL. The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science. 1977 Apr 8;196(4286):129-36. doi: 10.1126/science.847460. PMID: 847460.


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