Athlete Welfare: Whose job is it?

Since sport began, it was widely accepted that the top athletes had that certain something… perhaps described as a gift or an outstanding quality that allowed them to excel in their class.

And largely, it was their physical ability that was probed for the answers to their gift.

In more recent times, we now acknowledge that the success of an athlete no longer just depends on their physiological attributes. This outstanding quality or gift is now attributed to the athlete’s ability to “manage their inner minds” as effectively as they manage their bodies.

“Mind Management” – a relatively new term in the area of sport, can simply be described as taking control of your outcome through effective internal management.

The brain stores and manages our day-to-day requirements – and on the whole does a very effective job.

Think of the mind as the CEO of a multi National corporation. They send out instructions to each department in order to make things run smoothly; constantly assessing their feedback and requirements and adjusting the systems accordingly; looking to the future and building strategies; developing contingencies to avoid disasters; continually making improvements and taking care of repairs along the way.

So evidently the CEO has a critical role to play and without their expertise the corporation would become inefficient and eventually shut down.

If we consider our own mind, they have an equally critical role to play in our success and managed efficiently can achieve magnificent results. If however we have an ineffective mind strategy then our results would also be inconsistent and ineffective.

Drawing the same parallels, the athlete is no different! The burn out rate within athletes has continually grown over the past few decades as the demand on our athletes to achieve younger, last longer and fulfill their sponsorship obligations increases. More often than not this is done without any consideration for the long term psychological impact on the athlete.

When taken to the extreme, a cannon fodder mentality is adopted – there will always be another willing athlete to take their place.

With high stakes such as million dollar contracts being signed daily – often by teenagers, and their eager managers there is an ever increasing need to continually educate and monitor the minds of our next generation of champions.

This is a big step up from the humble paper round we did at the same age to fund our sporting careers!

So does this evolution of our athlete’s sporting careers correlate to our own social evolution? Perhaps the product of a more globally mature society. Or does it come at a price, the promise of quick cash as compensation for giving up a dream of sporting longevity. Is this a price too many athletes accept as part of the deal and are prepared to pay?

We all know of athletes who have had meteoric rises and are then forgotten just as fast when they fall from stardom with long term injuries? Many in their scramble to stay at the top of their sport resort to damaging their bodies with punishing training and competition schedules, sleep deprivation, food deprival, mental and physical exhaustion and for some, even drugs.

So who should take responsibility for placing these young athletes in these vulnerable situations? Who are the ones looking out for the long term growth, development and psychological welfare of the athletes?

Should it be the parents? The athlete? Or the coach?

I believe the answer is they all play significant key roles: roles that complement each other and each piece of the puzzle are just as important as the next. Yet the key responsibilities and boundaries of each party aren’t always as clear cut and immediately obvious.

If the athlete was a pop star they would be given a management team consisting of a vocal coach, public relations manager, media coordinator, event manager, promoter, physician and a personal assistant – this is a big difference from the athlete’s coach, parents and maybe the local physiotherapist!

So with an athlete – the parents, coach and the athlete must play their equal roles. The parents need to be there as emotional support, observer and in all probability financial backer, picking up the tab. And at times being there to pick up the pieces when things aren’t going according to plan. They need to understand the athlete enough to understand significant changes in their behaviour.

Some parents dedicate their lives to the success of their children, living the dream with them, with some parents even giving up work to ferry the athlete to and from training sessions and competitions, to the physiotherapist and fitting in school and homework.

This in itself can cause some internal conflicts both within the family unit and deep within the athlete? A large dependency on the child’s success can cause undue pressure, stripping the child of the ability to quit or scale back  if they desire, or to simply ride the wave of peeks and valleys that every athlete experiences.

As the athlete is the largest stakeholder, they need to understand their own body’s physiology, their own development, their internal and external boundaries, learning strategy and their own minds idiosyncrasies.

As the athlete grows their role changes, increasing, maturing and becoming more technical, the athlete’s holistic management portfolio has to be nurtured and developed in order to be efficiently taught and effectively managed.

In order for this to happen a large section of this responsibility has to come down to the coach! The coach is moulding and modeling the athlete’s development. Their physical growth and more importantly the athlete’s mental stability and welfare rests in the coach’s hands – they have taken on the responsibility of the whole athlete not just a bunch of muscles and bones in a skin sack, or a droid set to follow instructions.

With this understanding the training program must incorporate periodic psychological assessments to ensure the athlete is coping with the stresses of training, competing and the physical and mental fatigue sustained. The environmental aspect of an athlete’s life such as home, schooling and social acceptance weigh heavily on the mental stability of a highly tuned and often highly sensitive adolescent and needs to be factored into their assessments and programs.

We all know its hard enough being a teenager, but consider a teenager that’s training upwards of 30 hours a week, watching their dietary intake, maybe completing school exams and trying to be accepted by their peers when they have little or no time to socialise with them? To expect them to be mentally ready to compete without any mental coaching or preparation is a time bomb, and one that explodes often.

The athlete has to be aware of the synergistic relationship between the athlete, coach and parental support in order to give the necessary feedback, in the same way as a diagnostic computer works on a high performance sports car enabling the maintenance team to fine tune the right aspects of its performance. The athlete, parents and coach need to compare notes and observations in order to better manage the athlete’s complete progress.

When I was an athlete, my coach often used to say to me, “When you are in the gym I am your Mum, your Dad, your Brother, your Sister and your best friend”.

He was responsible for my full sporting development and that didn’t stop with just the physical development, he would take the time to see how I was going, asking if I was ok, asking my parents what they had observed.

I came from a broken home, where money was scarce, and violence was the norm. I trained six days a week and normally competed on the seventh. I did this for many years.

If my mental welfare had been left to me I would have imploded at a very young age, going off the rails socially or maybe even worse! Instead I grew to see the benefits of a strong and a well maintained mind and I still use today many of the tools and lessons I learnt back then.

So now, as a Behaviour Coach – what’s my job?

A coach needs to understand what makes an athlete tick, what’s important to that individual athlete, read what internal representational system the athlete works within in order to better communicate with them and understand the subtle shifts. Recognise what makes them tick, are they intrinsic or extrinsic? Are they trying to please themselves or others?

All coaches must take an active interest in their athlete’s and in their external influences, what the athlete is experiencing outside the sport in order to best manage the whole athlete.

Identification of these three key roles is the first step in creating a successful mix of, support, passion and objective that will enable the athlete to achieve all that they are destined to achieve

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