The Role of the Sports Medicine Doctor and the Multi-Disciplinary Team in supporting an Olympic Athlete

It’s the eve of the opening ceremony of arguably the biggest human spectacle on the planet.  All of the negative stories surrounding the sport and the local politics have dominated the headlines this week just as they did prior to London 2012.  The cost and burden of an Olympic Games on the host nation, the continual emergence of more Beijing and London athletes including medalists whose samples have subsequently tested positive for banned substances, Russia and Sochi 2014, the political unrest in Brasil, Zika Virus – the list could go on.

Is it forgotten already what an amazing experience London was for so many?  That opening ceremony, the amazing facilities, the atmosphere and sporting drama that swept us along, Super Saturday, the volunteers?  Personally, it made me proud to be British and will be etched on my memory in a way that England’s 1966 World Cup victory was for those who were there.

Lost this week amongst all of the gloom is recognition of the immense sacrifice, dedication and effort that goes into being an Olympic athlete. I am prepared to go on record and say I believe that there are still a lot of clean athletes from all sports at Rio. Their performance is therefore down to talent, hard work, being mentally and physically resilient, great athlete support networks and possibly even a little bit of luck.

Sports medicine is a crucial component of an Olympic athlete’s support network.  Early identification of a problem that can lead to lost training and competition time can literally be the difference between qualifying and not qualifying for the Games, between medalling and coming fourth. 

Sports Medicine Doctors are experts at dealing with musculoskeletal problems within the context of sport and some specialise purely in Performance or Elite Sport. This means they have to fundamentally understand the needs of the full time athlete and the demands of their particular sport. Any potential solution to a problem (illness or injury) that arises has to acknowledge what needs to be done to minimise the impact on the athlete’s training and performance. Total rest is rarely an option. Surgery is often avoided where possible because of the potential impact it could have on an athlete’s career.

In order to arrive at the correct solution to a given problem, the Sports Doctor must have a good understanding of the particular athlete.  This will include knowledge on some or all of the following:

  • Previous injury and illness
  • Results from previous medical screenings (including cardiac)
  • Training regime & competition schedule
  • Diet
  • Sleep pattern
  • Existing support network (coach/family/partner/friends)
  • Psychological profile

The Sports Doctor is also likely to need new information in order to make an accurate diagnosis.  This will include a clinical examination but could also mean blood tests, imaging or seeking out other specialist opinions. 

In elite sport, the Doctor will work alongside other specialists who will also have relevant information to feed in, helping to achieve an accurate diagnosis.  These specialists will include physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, biomechanists, sports psychologists and sports nutritionists.  This multi-disciplinary approach is commonplace in the highest level sport as it ensures that all facets of the athlete’s preparation are taken care of by specialists. The Sports Doctor must understand each role and when and how each specialist can and should be utilised.

Once an accurate diagnosis is made, an action plan will then be developed often with athlete and coach involvement. The Sports Doctor will lead on this and other members of the multi-disciplinary team will contribute to a greater or lesser degree depending on the nature of the issue. Reviews will then take place to assess progress and plan the next phase of rehabilitation or treatment in order to return the athlete to full training/competition as soon as is safely possible.

Performance can be as much about being able to train consistently without disruption due to injury or illness over a long period of time as it is about talent. In this way the Sports Medicine Doctor and the whole multi-disciplinary team play a vital part in preparing an Olympic athlete for competition. 

Once the Games begin, hopefully the negative press will subside and we can marvel again at the amazing capabilities of the athletes on show. 

Dr Mark Gillett is the Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine at Perform at Spire Little Aston Hospital. He is Performance Director at West Bromwich Albion Football Club and was part of the GB Medical Team at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Dr Gillett is available for clinic appointments on Monday afternoon/evenings. Please call 0121 580 7373 to make a booking or for more information. If you have a particular question about Sports Medicine and whether it is the right speciality for you, it is also possible to contact us by email at

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