Training the elite amateur athlete: legal issues

An elite amateur athlete may be just as serious as “professional” athlete. What makes an athlete “professional” is largely determined by the national body governing the specific sport, but it needs to be said that receiving compensation is not sufficient to make an athlete “professional.” For example, federal legislation provides some funding for amateur athletes; specifically, The Amateur Sports Act 1978 (36 U.S.C.A. § 391) created a trust fund that allows amateur athletes to receive funds and sponsorship payments while retaining their status as amateur.

What this means for those fitness professionals who work with elite amateur athletes is that they often have many of the same concerns and raise similar legal issues as sponsored athletes or professional athletes.

For example, competing in the Olympics is no longer limited only to amateur athletes. If an athlete you are working with has questions about their amateur or whether certain medications or events in their competition schedule will negatively impact their ability to qualify for a major event you should refer them to their governing organization or an attorney familiar with sports law. This is especially the case with an elite amateur athlete competing in restricted competition, including elementary, middle or high school, or college athletics. While schools and colleges apply their own rules for eligibility, athletic conferences, leagues, and associations also have their own eligibility rules. Be very careful giving advice in relation to their eligibility as you could make yourself liable to be sued if they rely on advice you gave, you were incorrect, and they suffered some damage or loss as a consequence of that reliance.

Understanding the scope of your practice and the limitations of your training and experience are particularly important when training elite amateur athletes. Scope of practice are the areas where your qualifications and experience give you the requisite authority and knowledge to coach or train. While you should be cautious not to work outside your scope of practice with every client, the potential risk of liability increases with an elite amateur athlete because much more is at stake should your negligence or omission cause damage, injury, illness or other loss. Be especially careful about “prescribing” any kind of diet or supplementation unless you hold the requisite qualifications in nutrition. Remember that some jurisdictions have very clear limitations about who is legally permitted to give dietary or nutritional advice. Be very aware of not giving any kind of medical advice.

Be honest about your qualifications, experience, and methodological approach. Many elite athletes will rely on your background and bio to make decisions about working with you. Presenting yourself falsely in any way is likely to increase your risk of liability should you be sued.

Make referrals to other qualified professionals if an athlete client needs information or advice outside of your scope of practice.

As a fitness professional, you know how important it is that you customize training for each client athlete. Ensuring that you match training periodization and methodology with the needs of your elite amateur athlete is especially important. This isn’t just because it is likely to yield better results, but also because failure to adapt your training to the needs of the individual athlete is more likely to lead to injury or illness. Overtraining is a particular risk with elite amateur athletes which is another reason why requiring athlete-clients to keep a detailed training log can be helpful in mitigating risk and aid in making adjustments in the midst of a mesocycle. Also, in so far as personalization helps reduce illness and injury it a risk mitigation strategy for fitness professionals!

Make onboarding a priority. You should also consider pre-testing, PAR-Q questionnaires and health questionnaires to be essential when working with elite amateur athletes. This information can provide you with the details needed to tailor a training plan for an individual athlete. In the same vein, physiological testing to determine progress along with training logs can help you make adjustments to the training plan which once again can help reduce the risk of injury or illness as a result of negligence or omission.

In coaching or training elite amateur athletes you may find that there is an increased need to work in a multi-disciplinary team with other professionals. For example, you may be asked by your athlete-client to be involved in discussions with physical therapists, Doctors, nutritionists, and others to assist a client recovering from an injury, or to manage their training as they progress into their career. What this means is developing a professional demeanor and policies and procedures that protect the privacy of your athlete-client. You may also need to consider whether involvement in such a multi-disciplinary team will bring you under the umbrella of HIPAA requirements.

As with all clients, it is good practice to ensure that you have a valid contract that includes waivers and disclosures applicable to your situation. Working with elite athletes raises the stakes and you should make sure all of your client documentation and contracts are reviewed by an attorney familiar with the fitness industry and working with elite athletes.

In some ways the difference between training an elite amateur athlete and a professional athlete is minimal. However, elite amateur athletes do give rise to a set of legal issues that fitness professionals should consider as part of their business and professional practices. As with all things legal, be sure to consult your attorney to ask questions about your situation and particular set of circumstances. The reality is that coaching elite amateur athletes can be rewarding for fitness professionals!


Photo by Alexander Redl on Unsplash