Many teams and sports provide support and encompassing mental health programs. Despite this, athletes and their mental health difficulties continue to fill news headlines. Emma de Kiefte takes a front row seat as the University of Canberra Firebirds ‘yoga’ their way to mental well-being, as the Canberra Raiders break stigmas through ‘crash prevention’.

The University of Canberra gym is deserted. The drenching rain combined with Monday-itis has deterred even the most dedicated of gym junkies. Yet despite the echoing drum of the rain, the faint sounds of voices and laughter can be heard up a flight of dimly lit stairs.

Seven o’clock on a Monday night, in a room hidden away above basketball courts, you’ll find an unusual sight. A small group of burly men, instructed by a much slimmer, agile instructor, all red-faced as they hold a Warrior Two pose…

The University of Canberra Gridiron team, also known at the UC Firebirds, are in their weekly yoga class.

Head coach Nathan Long – a well-built muscular man – stands barefoot in the mirrored hall, rolling up a baby blue, yoga mat. When gym staff first suggested that the men should go along to a few yoga classes, he and his team were sceptical to say the least. Six months on, and the Firebirds now have weekly class dedicated to their team.

Research shows that yoga, among its many other health benefits, alleviates stress and mental pressure, and it’s clear that it’s no different for these men. What started as a way to relieve injuries and increase flexibility, has turned into something much more.

Having missed a session the previous week, Nicholas Solomko remarked that his mind had felt clouded and stressed. Despite his original doubt, he’d found that the weekly sessions relaxed him, and cleared his mind.

The other players agreed, and listed the many other ways they’d seen improvements in their lives through an improved mental state. They now slept better, thought more clearly and felt less mental pressure than usual. One player added that the regular sessions released a lot of his anger and consequently he’d found that the little things upset him less.

Positive mental health is important to the Firebirds. During the season a psychologist is often organised to come and speak with the group about the struggles they face on and off the field and while the team began yoga as a way of increasing flexibility, they’re now reaping the mental benefits. The UC Firebirds are breaking stigmas surrounding yoga and burly men, as well as mental health in sport and, they’re not the only team going above and beyond to support their players.


Sitting down with the Canberra Raider’s Junior High Performance Program Manager and National Rugby League (NRL) Wellness Manager, Dean Souter, it’s clear that the Raiders don’t take mental health lightly.

Souter grimly admits that he thinks people often fall into the trap of thinking athletes are living it easy, or living “the lucky life” but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s just a different lifestyle, one that sees these people facing extreme amounts of pressure on a weekly basis,” he remarks.

In order to deal with the struggles players face in every aspect of their lives, the Raiders have invested in an eight-step educational program, Sports Life IQ. This program is aimed from their juniors all the way up to their NRL players, with the goal of educating athletes about the signs and the processes they should follow when “pressure builds”. Souter believes that when something happens to a player it is usually compounded by numerous problems, leading to a series of issues with a player that have the potential to impact them and their performance. Sports Life IQ aims to not only help players deal with the stress and the burdens that come with playing their sport but teaches them to identify possible problems and provides them with the tools to help cope with it.1231321

Souter breaks from his serious demeanour, to say with an obvious amount of relish and a quick smile; “We’re investing heavily in driver training, not panel beating after they crash.”

With this statement, you begin to understand why the Raiders are so involved with their players’ wellbeing and just why they understand their athletes better than anybody else. This is further evident in the weekly 15-minute sessions with counsellors that are integrated into each individual’s training schedule, just as they would speak to a dietician or a physiotherapist. The Raiders believe in training both the body and mind, as this to them is what makes a healthy athlete.


Yet, the question still remains: why, if teams such as the UC Firebirds and the Raiders, are going to such lengths to help their players, are athletes and their mental health struggles continuing to fill news headlines? Grant Hackett, Libby TrickettAlex Fasolo, and Lauren Jackson are some of the high-profile names that have had their troubles strewn across the news for the Australian public to see.

In 2007 The National Survey on Mental Health and Wellbeing found that 45% of the Australian population, aged between 16 and 85 years, would experience a lifetime mental disorder. Out of that percentage, 14.45% would be anxiety disorders, 5.1% substance use disorders and 6.2% affective disorders (that is, depressive episodes) experienced in the 12 months prior to the study.

While these numbers can be confusing, the sheer fact that almost half of the Australian population faces these difficulties brings light to the situation. It’s no wonder that athletes, who are often under extreme amounts of pressure on a weekly basis, make up a portion of these percentages. In spite of this, athletes still see very little support or understanding from the media and the wider community.


Former South African international hockey player and current performance coach, Lauren Penny, focuses on an athlete’s mental training, as this, she believes, is the key for helping individuals reach their full potential.

Athletes face a lot of pressure, but to Penny this is no different to a Chief Executive Officer of a major company or even a politician. Her strong belief is that “players haven’t been mentally trained or conditioned to manage the demands of performing at a high level”.

Although there is sometimes a mental coach or psychologist available for an individual to talk to if they feel the need, for many teams and sports it isn’t a requirement.

“It’s important they work with the coaching team not just in one-on-one sessions in an office,” she says.

Penny believes that it is vital that mental coaches and psychologists should be an integral part of the training of an athlete and that this is something many sports lack. While this is a major problem the biggest problem, she says, stems from the stigma that still surrounds mental health within sport and the wider community.

“For some reason, it’s seen as a negative thing to speak to a mental coach, like you’ve got a problem, which puts players off from opening up and being honest about things that a lot of players are probably going through. Players may feel like it’s showing a sign of weakness and that it may impact their selection,” she remarks.

And perhaps that’s the simple answer. The taboo surrounding mental health still exists.

 


Clinical psychologist Nesh Nikolic believes that despite coming a long way in the acceptance and understanding of mental health there’s still a long way to go.

When applying for the military, police force or even the local hardware store, your chances can be affected by your mental health. Similarly, insurance covers can even be impacted.

“People don’t want to come out and say they’ve seen a psychologist. We’d be crazy to say that there isn’t still discrimination that occurs. The taboo is still there,” he grimly admits.

A lot of athletes still won’t put their hands up and say they see a sports psychologist, rather than holding the view that they have one because it’s as valuable as having a dietician or a physiotherapist. In order to break this stigma, Nikolic believes that a step in the process is through awareness and the avoidance of giving people labels.

When an individual is given a diagnosis, they are labelled as being or experiencing something abnormal. When an athlete, is labelled by the media as having a mental disorder, they become ruled by the term and the stigma surrounding it. This has the effect of making it seem like there is something inherently wrong with that person, rather than they are struggling with a certain aspect of their life.

Nikolic summarised, saying; “I wish and hope that we could support people as humans without labels. Rather than looking at diagnoses, look at [how] every human faces challenges, or that they need a little support or even four walls where they can speak in private. If we can do that well, [in a] compassionate confidential way, people would be more supportive. And athletes being a driven group and high achievers might want to show their vulnerabilities more often if they are a part of a culture where we do show them.”

32323Similarly, Dean Souter suggests that stigmas can be removed through having a normalised process in elite sport and the wider sporting community, and by assessing each challenge on a person-by-person basis rather than having ideals on how a team or individual athlete should be coping.

“There are so many things on people’s minds at one time,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be sport but it’s when multiple things add pressure and beat you down and when the world you’re in takes a turn for the worst, that’s when things get unpredictable.”

Conversations between coaches, strength and conditioning trainers, physiotherapists, player welfare officers, psychologists and even the wider community are critical. These aspects make up a whole person rather than each area independently, because often it’s an athlete’s mental health that suffers as a consequence of these missing connections.

Souter added that an athlete should be seen as part of a community rather than an entity. This in itself, makes it a little easier for a community to understand when everything is not quite going to plan for the individual. “Mental health is about understanding athletes as people, not sportspeople,” he finished.


As with any long-standing issue, it’s hard to break a taboo. At the end of the day athletes are human beings. With the help of the media, this is regularly forgotten. They become a player, a number, or another name in the headlines, and as a consequence the athlete themselves begins to believe this.

Mental health and the stigmas surrounding it, both in sport and the wider community, are changing, but it still has a long way to go. Lauren Penny strongly believes that the stigma of being seen as weak, needs to be broken. Almost half the Australian population will face mental health difficulties over the course of their life. To Penny, this is a sign that mental health difficulties are not a type illness but a part of being human.

Just like the body, the mind needs to be trained for the pressures and the challenges it might face. Whether you’re a CEO, elite athlete, or a university student rushing to get your two-thousand-word essay completed, you face pressure and sometimes these pressures can get too much.

An athlete’s whole life is their mental health space, on and off the field. Teams like the UC Firebirds are not only breaking stigmas
surrounding burly men and yoga, but they’re also, like the Raiders, making it clear that it’s okay to not be okay. They’re leaving labels behind and integrating mental health into their training schedules in the hopes that one day it becomes a way of life.

Lifeline – 13 11 14
Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

By Emma de Kiefte