Articles and Case Studies

What I Love About Sports Medicine

07 Jun 2017

by Dr Gary Couanis

sports med

What do I love about Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM)? I’m sure most people assume it’s the front-row and behind-the-scenes access to sporting events. But that’s not what it’s all about.

"My patients regularly raise the bar on what I expect of myself. I won’t be making world record attempts anytime soon, but I love being challenged by the concept of what can be achieved, how much can be squeezed into a life, and what amount of difficulty can be overcome."

Recently I had my first experience interviewing prospective registrars for the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many candidates described being drawn to the field by their love of sport. No doubt a healthy love of sport goes a long way to enjoying a career as a SEM physician, but it doesn’t take long for your all-access sports-event pass to lose its novelty.

Don’t get me wrong. A front-row seat to some diverse and amazing experiences is a major job perk. In my first two years as a registrar, I was pitch-side for victories in a WAFL grand final; an NBL championship; a South East Asian Soccer Cup; an under-18 div 2 AFL championship; and a Men’s Hockey Champions Trophy. I’d flown on a private jet with the Australian Boomers and been backstage with acrobats of the Cirque du Soleil. I’d even been medical consultant for an arctic adventurer!

But not all those experiences were as glamorous as they might sound. There are the mundane bus trips, the difficult interactions with coaching staff, and some of the unrealistic expectations and external pressures. A low point was watching a player I’d cleared to play just days earlier suffer a high-grade Achilles tear in front of a massive live audience in the first game of an NBL grand final series.

Inspiring patients

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls for your best. (Epictetus c80AD)

The company you keep, over time, subtly influences the person you become. In my life, I’ve encountered no other field, personal or professional, that has led to more interactions with people who inspire me. On a daily basis I get to meet “dream-chasers”. I see people with personal goals and private battles as diverse as the diabetic trying to run their first marathon, the 60-year-old cyclist embarking on a masters world record attempt, and the middle-aged dad challenging himself with ultramarathons.

My patients regularly raise the bar on what I expect of myself. I won’t be making world record attempts anytime soon, but I love being challenged by the concept of what can be achieved, how much can be squeezed into a life, and what amount of difficulty can be overcome.

A deeper appreciation

Sports media is understandably biased towards success stories. It’s hard to develop a true appreciation of how many athletes train, strive and sacrifice, but still fall short of their goals. For every winner, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of “also-rans”. There are stories of injury and misfortune; modest personal goals and quiet achievements. There are those that eventually do triumph with their backstories of hardship never told. SEM physicians are uniquely privy to the unpolished “warts-and-all” side of elite sport uncensored by the news media, and I feel privileged to be a part of it.

Motivated people

Most physicians know the frustration of care compromised by poor patient compliance. SEM patients are generally very motivated and engaged with their treatment. They’re usually happy to follow advice even when it may be difficult, unpalatable or onerous. Sports people are often process-driven, a useful mindset when dealing with pain and injury. Occasionally the pendulum swings too far and patients can be over-zealous in their injury management, but that tends to be much easier to address.

Diverse experience

I’ve learnt, through my patients, about the worlds of dance sport, underwater rugby and roller derby, just to name a few. I’ve treated musicians, dancers, acrobats and archers who shared interesting insights into their professions. I’ve seen trekkers, climbers and adventurers with stories about their travels and adventures. Every day, I learn something interesting that may be completely unrelated to medicine.

A diverse experience at the elite level of sport is actually quite a rare thing. Athletes and coaches who reach the highest levels of their sport are obviously highly specialised. The SEM physician, however, is an exception and can experience multiple elite sporting environments and cultures. Often the team doctor is a fly-on-the-wall observer during team meetings, with the unique opportunity to view differences in coaching styles and team culture across dozens of sports.

Enabling aspirations

As doctors, we all love to help people. Helping people who inspire you and value (and comply with) your advice is a bonus. Helping people overcome setbacks and achieve their goals brings added reward. Engaging with people doing interesting things across diverse fields of physical activity enhances job satisfaction. In the end, with SEM, you generally get to help facilitate aspirations more often than you have to advise against them.

Dr Gary Couanis (MDA National Member)
Sport & Exercise Medicine Physician
Perth, WA

Dr Couanis is part of the Sport Exercise Movement in WA.

Employment Essentials, Sports Medicine


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