The success of professional athletes is well documented across television, social media and in the public. Wealth, happiness and adoration of fans is the typical portrayal of superstar sportsmen and women. Yet, athletes are arguably under greater workplace pressures and psychological stress than many other professions. Often overlooked because of perceived comfortable off-field lifestyles, supporting an athlete’s mental health has never been more important.
The recent shift of focus to player wellbeing from on field performance at many Australian sporting clubs has correlated to success. Directing resources toward player welfare and psychological help has assisted many to produce their best on game day. A notable example of this was the introduction of a full-time mindfulness coach, Emma Murray, at the Richmond Football Club in mid-2015. Many players, particularly the game’s biggest star Dustin Martin, have spoken of Murray’s influence on player wellbeing and mental health. What followed Murray’s employment was a drought breaking premiership in 2017 and two more by the end of 2020. Having a strong sense of mental wellbeing and personal relationships drives productivity in the workplace which then leads to innovation and accomplishment. The world of sport is no different.
What is Mental Health?
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” When taken in the context of professional sport, the stresses of being in the public eye and physical and emotional injury all have a considerable impact on mental health.
Australia is leading by example regarding the mental health of professional athletes. However, there is significant evidence suggesting that more can be done to further protect and represent both current and former athletes on the fundamental issues of mental welfare and safety. There are up to twice the number of mental health issues reported within high level athletes compared to the general population. Given the number of those who do not speak up about their battles, the real figure is likely far more substantial.
Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement – Australian Institute of Sport (AIS)
The AIS has implemented several programs to promote the mental health of high-performance athletes across Australia. The “Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement” program aims to lead and support National Sporting Organisations (NSO) to create a culture whereby athletes are looked after in facets of their life that are neglected as a result of their sporting endeavours.
It is important for athletes to become well-rounded individuals that have one eye on their life after their sporting career. Given the average lifespan of an athlete’s career is only a handful of years, having access and support to undertake further education, and/or business and development pathways is integral in reducing stress and anxiety about the future.
The AIS Program emphasises five key areas in an athlete’s overall development: Engagement, Mental Health, Career and Education, Personal Development and Conduct and Professionalism.
This area aims to give opportunities for athletes to engage with their local communities, sporting clubs and charities. It is important for athletes to recognise their positions as role models and leaders to younger Australians and help inspire smaller communities. Helping others and providing leadership will have a positive impact on the wellbeing of both the athletes and those they work with.
Providing athletes with access to suitable mental health information and education is critical to their development. Included in this are individualised psychology services which are tailored to their own specific needs, funded by the AIS. Although external resources must be provided, what an athlete personally does to improve their mental health will have a far greater impact on securing their mental health wellbeing.
Career, Education and Personal Development
Offering opportunities to athletes for their future during their sporting careers is the most important part of their off-field development. Often professional careers end suddenly, so having a back-up plan is critical to reducing stresses on mental health. This area is supported by access to:
- necessary career information;
- advice and related learning;
- career mapping;
- professional development; and
- relevant work experience.
Athletes should be encouraged to take the opportunities that come with being a professional, and then use these to benefit themselves and others.
Conduct and Professionalism
Many athlete breakdowns are on the back of a lack of support and uninformed choices during their careers. This area aims to provide advice on managing integrity issues and give guidance and support in the high-performance environment. As a result of many elite athletes not living in the ‘real world’ as children and young adults (away from parties, no late-night socialising, more limited social circles due to heavy training schedules), they may not know the provisions, policies and procedures required of them. Consequently, it is important that they get the support and direction they need in their stressful environment.
AIS High Performance System – Wellbeing Review
The AIS conducted an external wellbeing review of their high-performance program in 2019. The summary of the findings has further highlighted the importance of mental health and wellbeing to athletes, coaches, alumni, directors and managers, medical and support staff, and other industry experts. Mental health and wellbeing proved to be the priority to 73% of the 251 stakeholders across 23 NSOs. This was over 30% more than the next highest priority (injury management, which also has a substantial impact on mental health). Another 73% considered their wellbeing support to have improved whilst in high performance sport, and over two-thirds assessing the current wellbeing services as a ‘7 or above’. The perception that high-level athletes have it easy and are emotionless is archaic and institutions like the AIS understand this.
In contrast, the Wellbeing Review also revealed several recurring themes that athletes found to be detrimental to their mental health. The ‘reactive’ nature of the support networks, its inconsistency, insufficient resources and confidentiality concerns. Unfortunately, the high-performance sport industry has been seen to be results driven, so results have often been prioritized over someone’s mental health and enjoyment. To combat this, athletes must do what they can to de-stress, but also develop the mental fortitude to succeed at the top level. Mindfulness and meditation, staying away from team facilities on days off, getting the right amount of sleep and pursuing new skills are all recognised ways athletes can take a break and de-stress.
National Symposium on Sportspersons’ Mental Health & Wellbeing (NSSMW)
The NSSMW was held on 16 October 2020 at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre. It provided a first-hand look at what individuals within a variety of sports are currently doing to progress the mental health of athletes and other personnel involved at their institution. Included in the list of keynote speakers were former Socceroo and human rights advocate Craig Foster, AFL Head of Mental Health and Clinical Psychologist Dr Kate Hall, Professor Gene Moyle (Queensland University of Technology), and Head of Excellence & Wellbeing of Brisbane Lions Andrew Crowell.
The key topics centred on building an athlete’s mental fortitude so that they are better equipped to deal with the highs and lows of professional sport in a balanced manner. “Mental Fitness” is as important as physical fitness, and it is important to acknowledge that an athlete’s mental health may not mirror their physical wellbeing. Being deliberate with an athlete’s mind and their earning skills so as to build strength of mind is critical to their performance. The full session can be found on the Mental Health Foundation Australia’s Facebook page.
SportsLawyer hopes to have highlighted the nature of high-performance athletes and the increased potential to experience adverse mental health and wellbeing issues during their sporting careers. Challenging the stigma of mental health within the sports industry is an important step to take in the promotion of overall wellbeing in all Australians, especially athletes. The programs explored above not only build on an already strong mental health support system in Australia, but also serve to recognise areas in need of improvement and renewed focus.
If you are experiencing difficulties with your mental health, we encourage you to speak to your general practitioner or mental health specialist for support. For immediate assistance, consider contacting any of the following:
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636; www.beyondblue.org.au
Lifeline – 13 11 14; www.lifeline.org.au
SANE – 1800 187 263; www.sane.org
 World Health Organisation, “Promoting Mental Health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice” (Summary Report, 2004), 10.