It’s Allowed…

Let’s get one thing straight I am passionate about sport, so I have no hesitation in declaring upfront that this little diatribe as a passion piece written by a professional who spends her life working with and for the sports industry.

I want the sports industry in Australia to stick around and I want Australia back on the world stage as a dominant force in international sport. There is no hiding that fact.

I thrive on working with athletes from all manner of codes and disciplines. It is my job to get the best out of them and I stick up for them, defend them in the public arena and help them out of binds, which at times is to my own professional detriment.

I am not going to profess to know the ins and outs of every political nuance when it comes to the level of funding in Australia sport receives, but I think it’s worth presenting some of the observations of sport in Australia and abroad from someone who has a ring side, track side, pool side, and pitch side perspective.

The Mental Notes team has had some lively internal discussions around the reasons for the misbehaviour and sub-standard performance we have all observed recently across sports such as swimming, rugby league, AFL, and cricket. Misbehaviours and sub-standard performance were topics in two articles of recent times written by Kimberley Crow and Ben Quilty in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, respectively.

To be clear, this article is not about just Australian swimming, nor is it about all members of the Australian swim team – similar to the articles by Crow and Quilty, it expands to all sports that are currently receiving negative press.

One of the common themes emerging from our discussions is the allowance of behaviour that is not in-line with a culture of excellence. And as such the title of my passion piece is ‘It’s allowed…’

In my opinion, the growing tendency for sporting organisations to hang athletes out to dry when they deem that the athletes have brought their organisation or sport into disrepute (read national headlines) for the wrong reason is wearing a little thin. It is not constructive to continually chastise athletes. Unfortunately, it is our experience that if athletes are allowed to behave in a sub-standard way, invariably then they perform in a sub-standard manner. More importantly however is our observation that most athletes acquit themselves professionally and exercise daily sacrifice, discipline, and dedication despite the enormous temptations that daily life throws at us all. So yes, what I am saying here is that I believe that in many instances, it is a case of ‘one bad apple spoiling the barrel’.

Our team has had a wide range of experiences working with Olympic individuals and teams as well as professional individuals and teams, in very private and openly public arrangements. There is no doubt amongst our practitioners that the overwhelming majority of athletes are doing all they can to make a go of their chosen career path and making the best of what they have got, while they have got it.

Australia has always loved sport, most of us love to exercise, and sport is woven into our heritage and culture. Sport is a culturally significant endeavour, one that is inextricably linked with identity, community, and health and therefore it deserves all of the government funding it receives, regardless of race, colour, code, or creed. That said, when Olympic sports are predominantly government-funded, I can see why the general public is extremely unhappy with the news of unbecoming and simply unprofessional behaviour on the world stage at events such as the Olympic Games. Moreover, when seemingly over-paid highly visible professional athletes demonstrate a lack of respect in a variety of forums, it also sends even the biggest of sports fans into depths of disappointment.

The Mental Notes team works hard to support people who elect to make huge personal sacrifices to pursue excellence, so we don’t enjoy reading these headlines as it tarnishes an important part of the Australian psyche.

The sacrifices that the majority of elite athletes, particularly Olympic athletes, make are not for the faint-hearted. They make choices regarding how they spend their time, which undoubtedly delays pursuing other more financially viable endeavours. The perception that all full-time athletes are set for life due to their sport is simply incorrect. The percentages of those that make a comfortable living purely out of sport are low. This is not only true in Australia. A recent survey by BBC Sport suggests that nearly two-thirds of elite sportswomen in the UK cannot make a living out of competing. For every superstar earning a fabulous income, there are thousands of elite athletes who have to rely on friends, fools, and families to fund their sport, provide housing and basic services, and many have casual/part-time, and often full-time jobs. ABC’s Q&A program immediately after the Olympics reported that several swimmers on the Australian team who behaved and performed exceptionally well were under extreme financial hardship in their preparation for the Olympics.

So, cutting to the chase.. why are we seeing bad behaviour by a minority of individuals, seemingly at the top of their game, in both individual and team sports, at professional and semi-professional levels?

My observations are this…When an individual becomes bigger than the team, the sport is putting itself in a difficult position. We see this more often in highly paid professional sports, however, it occurs and is allowed to occur at all levels. Teams need to have goals and set values/behaviours that are bigger than the individuals within the team. This over-emphasis on individual importance is almost parallel to the problems of the Western world where individualism has become a priority over a sense of community and belonging, something fundamental to most Eastern cultures.

Weak leadership has been touted as reasons why some athletes have misbehaved.

Within sporting organisations, the management, coaching, and support staff are more important than ever. The philosophies of sports and their associated organisations and clubs need to be defined clearly so that every athlete knows the ‘rules’, they know the expected set of behaviours, and there are consequences to not meeting these behaviours. Policing must rigorous; enforcement must be emphatic, even-handed, and blind to status.

Autonomous environments in our national teams appear to be failing. Perhaps the pendulum had swung too far… Athlete autonomy may be an ideal, a dream, but the reality is that as athlete ages are younger – both chronologically and emotionally, put in the spotlight sooner, they are not equipped to make the decisions required. Creating a culture of discipline is imperative amongst our young athletes. They know that Australia expects them to produce the world’s best performances, so they need to demonstrate to the public that they have given 110% to try to achieve this challenging goal. They need mentors, guidance, rules and regulations that help them to understand what is and what is not acceptable for the sport and country that they are representing. Given the young age of many of the athletes entering full-time sport, it is more imperative that education and support systems are set up proactively. There would appear to be a lack of education and appropriate support for off-field/outside of sport development. For example, many athletes have moved away from their families and support networks at key periods of adolescent/identity development, often leading to foreclosed identity.

In all sports and in all walks of life, there is always easy access to substances (legal & contraband). The combination of spare time, disposable income, and temptation often result in athletes making poor choices regarding substance use. Essentially, it is about an imbalance of demands and resources. There are too many demands on these young athletes and they do not have enough personal resources to deal emotionally and behaviorally with the demands.

It has to become a priority for sporting organisations to provide opportunities for their human resources to develop the required skills to deal with the on and off-field demands of elite sport.

The lack of holistic identity also contributes. This is often (but not always) created by the sports management of these athletes, and of course, fueled by media. I have seen some fantastic managers who align their athlete with appropriate and relevant products/services/brands. However, I have also seen managers who are marketing a super-human being that is not adequately equipped for the fall on the other side if (or when) things go ‘pear-shaped’.

What’s more, is that many of the young athletes lack the ability to deal with pressure and the high level of criticism from the general public and media. Again, there seems to be a lack of psychological preparedness for both the pre- and post-competitive moments. This was exemplified in the post-Stilnox interviews. James Magnussen stated that he was under a lot of pressure and wanted some relief from the pressure – to relax, have fun and be normal for one night.

It is possible for our sporting organisations to do better at equipping these athletes with the skills required to handle such situations.

The unrealistic expectations for athletes to be super-human when most of them are still really young contribute to the perceived pressure. Furthermore, the expectation that Australia will simply continue to bring home gold medals without the specific performance indicators and processes in place is naive. You do not need a psychologist to tell you that if there is an over-emphasis on outcomes such as gold or winning, athletes tend to falter, particularly if they are inexperienced in international competitions. Gold and winning are extremely motivating – they are why excellence in sport exists, however, outcomes are used to drive and foster the performance and processes required to achieve the gold. This process-focused approach works time and time again and it appears as though it needs revisiting in some of our sporting organisations.

There is one other contributing factor that does deserve more of a mention. Individual sports managers play a pivotal role in this mix as well. They are working to ensure that their athlete makes the most of their ‘time in the sun’.. as the saying goes, ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Sport can be short-lived and the opportunity to make money for the likes of Olympians comes around every four years and it is more often the case that it only happens once. If these managers care only for their client and they are competitive creatures, then it’s understandable that they are looking to capitalise on the opportunities when presented. However, when it comes to national representation then the country must come before the individual. See Team GB for what appeared like a great example of this approach at the 2012 Olympic Games.

There is also no doubt that social media is playing its part. It has many wonderful benefits to our life, however, the detriments in terms of the lack of ‘down time’ that athletes have is significant. The inordinate amount of time spent providing and receiving opinions and updates has to be a factor in the inability of these young athletes to draw lines between the reality of what needs to occur to perform at the top level and the fiction that is often created through such mediums.

Still, how often does Twitter get athletes in trouble? Too often. It would appear that it is time to ban access to social media platforms for blackout periods during important events, in my opinion. I will always remember John Eales’ pre-Olympic advice, “Just turn it off … It’s pretty simple”.

So, what needs to happen?

It would be fair to say that the Mental Notes team is a fan of discipline. And, if I wasn’t in my current career, the armed forces may have been the career of choice, so it’s no surprise that we see the lack of discipline in sport as a contributing factor. And discipline can only be evident if everyone knows the rules!

I have and will always say that athletes can cope with not being good enough, but they cannot cope with inconsistencies in management or coaching, nor will they develop boundaries of their own, particularly when they are in groups.

It is vital to review what worked well in the past as models for success in training and team development. However, the past success does not necessarily work in future campaigns. Perhaps the latest initiative, Winning Edge to come out of AIS is part of the wake-up call for an invigorated approach to drive the world’s best high-performance focus across Australia’s Olympic sports and potentially across some of our non-Olympic sports too.

The increasing prevalence of loose standards and minimal discipline is the sporting organisation’s responsibility.

Rebecca Wilson’s article in response to the infamous panel interview of the swimming relay team was spot on… “The conduct of Magnussen and his cohorts appears reminiscent of a real-life Lord Of The Flies, a world with no grown-ups where the self-appointed leaders bring about their own destruction.”

Athletes thrive under leaders where they know what they are going to get the majority of the time. Take a look around at some of the best/most successful coaches of team sports – there are similarities. I will add here that we are not talking about whether everybody ‘likes’ these coaches and whether they have a deep, warm relationship with their coach, but whether these coaches can maintain control and develop self-control in their athletes.

Self-control is the key player here and although there is a dream that young individuals can foster this skill themselves in their own time, I tend to agree with the likes of researchers such as Roy Baumeister who knows this topic inside and out. He provides plenty of accounts of how parents, teachers, coaches, and the like are large contributors to the development of self-control in younger individuals. Provide the boundaries for athletes to learn effective self-control.

Long term effective working relationships with athlete career and education counsellors, psychologists, and the like are the only way that athletes will see that teams and organisations are committed to the process of personal and professional development within the sporting context. Furthermore, it is not enough to bring psychologists in at the last minute pre-competition nor is it enough to only introduce the psychologist when there is a problem or a crisis or a review that needs to be done!

I will add and emphasise that it doesn’t have to be a psychologist. There are many other professions and people that can assist young athletes to develop themselves as they pursue a career in sport. But, whichever personnel are chosen, the sporting organisations and clubs need to make the development of their athletes a priority.

If even some of these actions occur we may hear more about the positive contributions our Olympic and other professional athletes are making to junior athletic clubs around the nation. I am sure that I am not the only one who wants to read about the good things that athletes are doing. Examples off the top of my head include raising money for certain causes, or going out to schools to discuss their training programs, or doing coaching courses themselves so that they can give back to the sport that they love.

I could easily fill pages with names of athletes who are doing this right now. So, please don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. There are problems in Australian sport, as there are with most industries, however for the most part it provides a positive influence on our lives whether it is as a participant, spectator, supporter, and/or service provider.

I said at the beginning that this is a bias piece written by a sports fanatic, but I also hope that it provides some insights into both the real and perceived problems in Australian sport right now.

We cannot have sporting organisations hanging athletes out to dry any more than we can have the reputation of the organisations that support our athletes tarnished indelibly by the actions of the minority. Athletes rely on organisational structure and rules to guide them. There are always going to be problematic athletes that create headaches and more for coaches and management. However they are the minority.. they are the exceptions. The majority will comply if they are provided with clear boundaries.

Once these boundaries are provided in a consistent manner, there is hope for the return of a culture of excellence in Australian sport.

Just like coaching philosophies need to be integrated into every training session, sporting organisations need to be consistently verbalising and acting out their high standards on a daily basis. Lacklustre attempts of leadership from the top merely support the proverb, ‘the fish rots from the head down.’

Dr Andrea Furst  | Sport & Exercise Psychologist CPsychol HCPC Registered Andrea is based in London and provides both face-to-face and virtual sport psychology services to athletes worldwide.