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EDITORIAL: How to work with elite athletes


Is there such a thing as a profile for a 21st century athlete? If there was, the model could certainly be based on tennis player Novak Djokovic, the athlete we’ve chosen to kick off with in 2014.


Athletes have to be physically, mentally and technically prepared for their sport, that’s a certainty. But today, that’s not enough. They have to speak many foreign languages (six, in Djokovic’s case). They have to be comfortable with the demands of show business, of which they can never tire.


For this reason, Djokovic, from the small country of Serbia without a tennis tradition, is an excellent example of what it means to be an athlete today and without question a good role model to all young kids who dream of becoming champions. He shows us that in the world of sport, if you have talent and are willing to work hard, anything is possible.


What, then, is the role of the sports medicine doctor and how does he care for such an athlete? In this issue, Dr Paul Dijkstra shares his experience of working for 7 years with the Great Britain Track and Field team.


I am often asked by young sports medicine doctors what advice I can give if they want to eventually care for an athlete like Djokovic. It’s not an easy question to answer. Of course, I know that all these young colleagues today have completed excellent sports medicine programmes; they have amazing theoretical knowledge. Thanks to the internet, in a few minutes they are able to have the best scientific papers at their disposal. But let me share with you and them a real-life story that as I write, is making headlines.


We all know of the grave accident suffered by one of the world’s best athletes, Michael Schumacher. But what many don’t know is that Aspetar’s previous Chief Medical Officer and one of the founders of the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal, Professor Gerard Saillant, is in Grenoble with him. Why is this retired professor, who is finally able to spend the holiday season with his family, in hospital with his former patient? Because of the friendship, passion and love that he has for athletes. Because of the relationship that was described to us last year by footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic: ‘my doctor is my best friend’.


Prof Saillant operated on Michael Schumacher after he sustained a complex fracture of the leg after an accident in England. Through this process they developed a special relationship which resulted in the creation of the ICM Brain & Spine Institute in Paris for the benefit of the general population.


The message my young colleagues can take from this sad event is that if you want to become a successful sports medicine doctor who works with high level athletes, you have to have professional knowledge and discipline. But most importantly, you have to love your job, your athletes and you have to be dedicated to them to the end of your life.


Nebojsa Popovic MD PhD


January 2014


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