By Lauren Bradfield

Inspiration – this is what these 2016 Rio Olympics have been about. Overcoming adversity, breaking old records, bringing home gold, the rivalries and the outfits; each sporting event has been a thrilling spectacle showcasing grit, determination and inspiring us to new heights.

So, what makes these athletes such gladiators? What components make up the whole to produce a world champion? What makes Michael Phelps one of the best swimmers of his time? And what made Wayde van Niekerk break the world record and become a superstar in the eyes of all South Africans? There are many elements to success – but let’s break it down and explore the main aspects that we think contribute to optimal physical function of the body, as described by Panjabi, whose research is well known to us Physios.

  1. The muscular system – without our muscles and tendons we would not be able to generate power and move, it’s as simple as that. Let's think about the high jump event: the upper and lower limbs and trunk need to work together to launch the athlete into the air and propel them as high as possible. Our stabilizer and mover muscles need to work in unison during any activity. We need good muscle control and recruitment so that they fire at the right time for the right task, and the muscles must protect our body so as not to put us in a poor, potentially damaging position, especially our spine. Remember that strengthening, stretching and control are all equally crucial to ensure your muscles can do all of the above-mentioned tasks.
  2. The articular system – with just muscles and fascia we would be squishy and shapeless. Our bones, ligaments, discs and joints make up the stability structure that our muscles attach to and push off. In other words, they are equally as important for optimal function. Our bony structures fit together like puzzle pieces and give us form closure – I.e. Structural or passive stability. These structures work together to give us better control.
  3. Thirdly, our neural subsystem of the body which comprises of the brain and the nerves. The motor cortex of our brain learns tasks and with repetition, can instruct the body to do certain motions optimally. The brain monitors signals sent via the nerves to the muscles. This creates harmony between the brain and the body, allowing for stabilizing of the muscles before and during activity.

But these physical elements as mentioned above aren’ the only systems working for optimal function. This is where the biopsychosocial concept comes in. This concept says that the physical (above), psychological and social all play an equally important roles in how we perform. This can be further broken down into patho-anatomical elements, lifestyle (choices around diet, smoking), psychosocial (our cultures and beliefs), psychological (stressors and mental health) and neurological cortical changes (pain over long periods of time that changes our brain’s perception of pain or injury).

Genetics also play a big role in optimal function. A good example of this is swimming sensation Michael Phelps who has a rare connective tissue disorder called Marfan’s syndrome. This condition is one where the joints and tissue become hypermobile or elastic. This gives him the edge in the pool where the wingspan of his arms are greater than his height. One may argue that all these gladiators have some form of genetic advantage in their field of expertise. Either way all these elements have come together to allow for optimal function. It is therefore evident to see how injures can occur so easily if one or more of these elements are off-balance or dysfunctional.