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Any discussion around mental health had long been taboo in elite sport and Australia was no different. Athletes were underserved and too often performance in competition came at the cost of mental health. Attempts to break this paradigm were hindered by the stigma attached to sport, and society at large, when it came to discussing mental wellbeing.
The ground began to shift when the Australian Sports Commission, a governmental department, perhaps mindful of the high profile cases of Australian athletes suffering from mental health issues, decided to create an executive role around athlete wellbeing and engagement at the Australian Institute of Sport. Their first step was to appoint Matti Clements as Deputy Director of Athlete Wellbeing & Engagement at the AIS in January 2018.
“My vision is that this space is seen as important as any other area in high-performance sport,” Clements told the press at the time. Clements, a former AIS psychologist who has worked across elite Australian sport, added: “It needs a seat at the table in the high performance environment and I think that’s clearly indicated by this role. It can’t be something that sits down the bottom of the servicing model. It has to be just as important as everything else we know is really important.”
Fast forward 16 months, and Clements has barely completed her journey from Melbourne to Manchester when she takes to the stage at the Leaders Meet: Wellbeing summit at Etihad Campus to discuss her work across Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth sports in Australia.
Today, the AIS pays for athlete wellbeing & engagement managers to operate in each of those sports under the stipulation that they report directly to the national sporting organisation’s [NSO] high performance manager or CEO. The aim is to serve the athletes who had been let down by a system that failed to recognise that all too often high performance came at the cost of mental health. “Everything is transparent,” she continues. “We’ve also clearly stipulated the money for able and para sport because historically, across the system, para has missed out.” Clements sat on the panel that recruited each athlete wellbeing engagement manager and emphasised that the funding could not be used elsewhere.
What is athlete wellbeing and engagement?
Firstly, as she reveals, Clements and her colleagues needed to ask athletes in the AIS system how they defined ‘wellbeing’ and ‘engagement’. She says: “We threw around a lot of definitions and we ran these past certain focus groups of athletes and this is what we landed on.” She presents a slide to the room that reads:
With those definitions in hand, the drive to recruit athlete wellbeing engagement managers for each NSO could begin based on the AIS’ clear vision and purpose, both of which she lays out in a later slide:
Australian athletes can learn, thrive and contribute to the community during their time in high performance sport and life afterwards.
To lead and support Australia’s sporting industry to understand that a successful high performance culture includes athletes finding the right balance between wellbeing, engagement in activities outside of training and competition, and the requirements of elite sport.
Then, as Clements explains, the network of athlete wellbeing engagement managers that serve the NSOs of Australian sport will deliver upon bespoke frameworks that her team develops throughout each sport. “It gives them a roadmap for what they need to deliver to change a high performance culture in this space. If we can develop it and drop it down through 20-25 different sports then that’s a sustainable model and what it does is free up the time of the individuals in the daily training environment to spend with the athletes and coaches.”
Clements and the AIS deliver services and programmes based around five streams.
1. Mental health
The first step was unprecedented in Australian sport. Clements and the AIS have developed a nationwide mental health referral network of psychologists, psychiatrists and neuropsychologists, which can be used by coaches, athletes and high performance staff. “There’s a hotline number and a clinical psych who sits in our department takes the call and triages them into a service based on what information is provided in the interview,” she explains. “It can be a time-intensive method but then we can track the data. We do this so we can tell an accurate story to the Australian public and we as educating the system around themes, which is really important. We’re destigmatising and educating the system.” To that end, there is also a mental health literacy programme that gets delivered to athletes, the high performance system and family members. “That programme gets delivered throughout the year and can be cut and diced according to their availability.”
2. Conduct & professionalism
The AIS has appointed a Conduct & Professionalism Manager to oversee this stream. “We develop the templates, the critical incident management plans, social media policies for athlete wellbeing & engagement managers,” says Clements. “They can tinker with it to make it bespoke to them and their national sporting organisation but we’ve done all the hard work on that. We also do the education around how to implement a critical incident management plan. Other things in there include ethical decision-making, education, respectful relationships, respectful behaviour and that will be rolled out throughout the year.”
Clements also explained that the AIS undertook a benchmarking exercise across Australian sport around duties of care. “We interviewed about 120 high performance stakeholders around where are the gaps, what we need to do, and where are the red, orange and green areas. That gives us a roadmap. That information will then inform a cultural health check that gets delivered every year for every NSO to ensure we’ve got a minimum level of safety and wellbeing for our performance system.”
3. Personal development
Personal development can be found across the other four streams an encompasses anything from post-sport careers to life skills. “We have created a range of curriculums, content and programmes to be delivered face to face or online around financial literacy or issues such as developing a growth mindset,” says Clements. “There’s a help-seeking behaviour literacy programme and there’s a values-based decision-making programme. That’s all available to the system at no cost.”
4. Career & Education
The AIS earlier this year established its Career & Education Practitioner referral network. As Clements explains: “That is practitioners who can provide high level expertise on vocational pathways. It’s referral-in and we’ll cover the costs of all podium-plus-level athletes and coaches.” There is also help for the athlete wellbeing & engagement managers with the provision of a personal development programme. “This is so that we can ensure a level of risk management and skillset across those people. What we’ve done is invite the whole system, including professional sports, into that education and we’re creating community practice hubs so that they can actually have some peer support; it’s led by us, but there’s peer support there.” Clements and her team have also devised a national workplace strategy specifically devised for the unique needs of elite athletes.
The final stream is designed for athletes to be able to give back to their communities. Clements says: “What we’ve done this year is focus on mental health. Why we’ve done that is because we think there’s ‘bang for buck’ with it; there’s an appetite in the Australian community to hear about and learn about mental health and we see it as really valid for our elite population anyway to raise awareness and decrease stigma.” She cites the nationwide coverage of athlete Dane Bird-Smith’s mental health issues and a Players’ Voice article featuring track cyclist Kaarle McCulloch. “Part of that is destigmatising that for high performance sport, but also destigmatising it for the Australian population.”
How do we know if we’re successful?
For all these provisions and highly produced slides, Clements admits that the AIS has not cracked wellbeing. She says: “That’s all operational from roughly six months of work – we have by no means nailed what needs to occur across the system for this to be best practice. One of the key things that my team needs to work at: how will we know if we’re successful? And I don’t actually know.
“We do have a couple of monitoring tools around this; we monitor the community perception of elite athletes once a year or every two years; that’s one way we’re going to measure it. We’re also looking at some other internal measures on system measurement on perception of this space; but we need to nail the measurement because questions will be asked. It’s a significant investment for Australian sport and, as we’ve heard today, there’s not a simple answer to that.”