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  • Dr. Rakesh Chakule

Integration of Sports Health Professionals in the Indian Sports Ecosystem

With the increasing role of sports health professionals at the junior and senior levels in sport, Dr. Rakesh Chakule, part of the 2nd edition of the High Performance Leadership Program, shares how the creation of a unified digital pool of qualified and licensed sports health professionals on a national level can be a game-changer for the ecosystem in terms of excellence in sports and better performance of Indian athletes at the international level



An ecosystem is a complex network or interconnected system. Any sports ecosystem has three significant components that are interconnected-

1. Athlete & coach

2. Sports science and health

3. The Industry—finance/technology/management

For the sports ecosystem to function effectively and produce results, constant interaction, and interrelationships between these three components are required. Professionalism in each element plays a vital role, but the professional services' synergistic integration brings in excellence in the ecosystem.


It is proved beyond doubt that India has immense sports talent. The industry and its services have made their mark globally. The private health sector in India is at par with any developed country in the world. The industry has come forward and is now increasingly participating in the sports ecosystem. Technology is continuously adapted to hunt talent in India. However, sports health science is still one of the most undervalued practices in the Indian sporting world. When implemented efficiently, it can often be the difference between winning and losing crucial games or reaching the podium.


In the current scenario, the Indian sports ecosystem focuses on the excellence part or the high-performance part. However, when we speak of the ecosystem per se, there is massive scope for further developing and integrating the sports health science sector to cater to such a vast ecosystem.


The health sector has already begun the journey with the introduction of sports medicine and allied disciplines and is steadily progressing towards sports-specific health professionalism. Sports science and health sector include professionals such as Sports Medicine Physicians, Sports Surgeons, Physiotherapists, Psychologists, Nutritionists, Strength conditioning experts, Physiologists, Sports Bio-mechanists, Sports dentists, Travel medicine experts, Sports Pharmacists, Sports Radiologists, High altitude medicine experts, Massage therapists, Sports Kinesiologists, Podiatrists, Sports Orthotists and Prosthetists, and Sports Paramedics.


The industry has started focal application of sports health professionals in selected sports disciplines at some sports centres. This focal application can achieve sporadic sporting success stories. Only after full integration of the sports health sector into the ecosystem will the larger goal of excellence be realized and sustained over a prolonged period.


Such full-scale integration may be approached through a unified pathway at the national level. The path can be made more effective and result-oriented by being sport-specific. The path must cater to the present and future needs of the ecosystem. Creating a national digital pool of such qualified sports health science professionals and bringing them on a common platform with National Sports bodies to best utilize their potential is the way forward. There needs to be a more extensive, long-term employability of health professionals in the Indian sports ecosystem. Evidence-based, individualized permanent integration of sports health professionals into a sport discipline can be a game-changer for the ecosystem in terms of excellence in sports and better performance of Indian athletes at the international level.


Background

There is an increased role of sports health professionals at the junior and senior levels worldwide. Many sportspersons in the past have dedicated their success to the health professionals who were a part of their sporting journey.


For instance, 47-year-old Indian Tennis legend Leander Paes, seven times Olympian and bronze medallist of the 1996 Games, credits his sporting longevity to the supporting health professionals who were associated with him over three decades.


A 28-time Olympic swimming medallist Michael Phelps during an American College of Sports Medicine ACSM 2017 event, stressed the importance of the sports health professionals and revealed details of a science-based regimen that contributed to his unprecedented achievements. He described how his medical team monitored his sleep regularly and specifically collected data on REM, light and deep sleep and how this helped him recover fast every night during Beijing 2008 Olympics to win a record eight gold medals.


The above examples highlight the importance of continued presence and full integration of health professionals for achieving persistent success. In India, senior athletes who achieved success on international platforms may have had the means and access to qualified health professionals. On the other hand, many junior talented sportspersons leave professional sports due to a neglected career impacting injury. The lack of access to a sports health professional at the right time can put an end to the sporting career of athletes. The role of qualified sports health professionals versus general health professionals in such incidences comes to the forefront.


India is witnessing the continuous in-flow of foreign coaches and experts, which influences various aspects of the sports ecosystem. This has led to the increased demand for qualified professional services in the sports health sector. These foreign marquee experts expect certain supporting services as the minimum step towards sports excellence. This can be achieved by the integration of sports health professionals in the ecosystem.


Proposal and Counterview


Create a unified digital pool of qualified and licensed sports health professionals on a national level.

India, at present, has many health professionals, but only a few are working exclusively in sports. To achieve excellence, we need to pool these sports health professionals into a separate entity. For effective utilization of their services across the country, creating a digital pool is imperative. This pool must incorporate all licensed sports health professionals to practice exclusively in the sports industry. Such a health pool can then be divided based on broad categories of sports and all Sports Federations/Associations must adopt their respective medical committee members from this pool. Many in the industry sight the absence of a single source of information about qualified sports health professionals in the ecosystem. A single-platform unified digital pool of sports health professionals can address this issue.


Employment of sports health professionals within the sports industry.

The issue in employing sports health professionals in the sports industry is a lack of awareness about the importance of health professionals' role at the mass level. Another factor is the non-integration of the health sector with sports.


Former President of the Indian Association of Sports Medicine, Dr. P S M Chandran, says if India is to achieve sports excellence, sports health professionals' long-term employment is a prerequisite. Project-based or event-based hiring of sports health professionals is not the solution.


The "Process" of long-term integration versus "short-term objectives" needs differentiation. To provide the best services, the sports health professionals must work continuously throughout the year with the respective athletes. A sports health professional's role is not limited during the injury period; instead, they must be part of their day-to-day practice.


India has many sports clusters such as Kalinga Bhubaneswar, JSW Inspire Institute, ABTP Bhubaneswar, Tata Hockey Academy Jamshedpur, and Balewadi Pune, to name a few. Such complexes need to be augmented with comprehensive permanent sports health facilities with in-house sports health professionals working on a full-time basis. Currently, many such clusters send their athletes to specialized hospitals and medical clinics for consultation and treatment. Such clinics sometimes are located in another city or state. This creates issues in the recovery and follow-up of athletes. The health professionals in these centres may also be unaware of the training facilities available at athletes' home locations and thus a compromised treatment plan. Therefore, a unified digital pool of health practitioners at the cluster level is the need of the hour.


Establish national level sports-specific high-performance medical division with sports health professionals at the helm.

Every sport is unique, and more notable is the fitness criteria, physical characteristics, and injuries in each sport. The sports health professionals working with shooting cannot be expected to be part of the football team or boxing team. Each sport has a different requirement.


India needs a high-performance sports health division for each recognized sport catering to enhancing physical and mental health performance. These divisions can be part of and be housed in the high-performance centres for each sport at the national level. Such divisions must employ expert health professionals for the particular sport from the unified national pool. The professional must have five years of experience in the sports health profession to be employed at such divisions. The respective sports federations and associations can thus avail the best-updated sports health professional services and recommendations. These divisions will cater to the individual sports' overall demands and accompany the Indian contingent at continental and world championships.


In India, along with mainstream sports, the rise of indigenous and rural sports must be considered. A separate division for sports health science related to these sports is also a necessity.


Establish National Health Science Centre of Excellence respectively for Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics, and Paralympics.

These are specialized centres encompassing all disciplines in Summer, Winter, Paralympics, and Special Olympics, focusing mainly on building the sports health professional teams for such mega-events. The recruitment for such centres must be from the high-performance divisions of respective sports disciplines. The sports health professionals from these centres will accompany the Indian contingent at such mega-events. Each sports health professional must spend at least two years at these centres to become part of the medical team at such events. The focus must be on keeping qualified athletes injury-free while enhancing performances and Anti-Doping. Mental health and travel medicine need more extensive attention for the contingent. Such centres exist in countries like Russia, Canada, Australia, and USA and cater to their Olympics and Paralympics teams.


These centres will provide the health workforce for the Olympic Games. The number of health professionals in the delegation is scanty for India. In contrast, Canada's stats are 36 medical personnel for 265 athletes in summer 2004 Athens, 65 health professionals in summer London 2012 and 107 health professionals for 313 athletes in Rio 2016 summer games.


This again proves that sports health science professionals are a vital part of the contingent to excel apart from coaching and technical expertise. The same model can be applied in India to achieve success at such mega-events.


Establish a National Sports Health Science University for education and research.

The sports ecosystem is no outlier when it comes to data-driven growth. Any funding in sports in India majorly comes from the private sector, which in turn relies on data for investment. Such sports-related robust data requires a systematic approach and research. This kind of research is possibly best in a university setup. There is no comprehensive sports health science university in India at present. Cologne Sports University in Germany is an example.


A National Sports Health Science University will serve two purposes- world-class sports health education and research in sports. It can deliver various specialized sports-related health programs to create qualified professionals. The university can create a unique environment for regular Sports Performance Summit of healthcare professionals and the sports industry where influential practitioners can share ideas and spark discussions that will shape India's sports future. Australia has gained continued success in sports through such summits, and India can replicate this model. This University, in future, may serve as a source point for all policies and rules regarding sports health science in National Sports Codes.

Conclusion

The sports industry and sports-health sector need cohesion of efforts to take India ahead on the path of continued sporting success. The vital role sports health professionals play in athletes' journey requires recognition in the industry. Improvement of the health facilities in sports complexes, availability of qualified and licensed sports health professionals, sports-specific health divisions for high-performance and excellence are a few pertinent issues in the Indian sports ecosystem. Data-driven industry funding can address these issues over a period. Olympic sports, as well as indigenous sports, need equal attention. Athletes, sports, and health need professional integration in pursuit of excellence.

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