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“Wellbeing begins the first day kids come into your programme at 13 or 14,” Neil Kilshaw, the Performance, Welfare & Education Manager at St Helens, told the Leaders Performance Institute in 2019.
The reigning Super League champions have one of the most highly developed wellbeing programmes in elite sport. “I think that’s where you can have an influence right away and you’re starting to develop a culture where you are more than what you do on the field – there’s a lot more to being a rugby player.” This understanding has underpinned much of the good work that is being done both at the club and across English rugby league as a whole.
Kilshaw continued: “I’ll make sure I am at every welcome meeting when a new kid joins us and it gives me an opportunity to know the player and their family straight away. I can also make sure we’re not giving the kids false hope from a young age.
Beyond that, we want players to be active and to connect with people around them, friends and family, and not just become insular with sport, rugby and St Helens.”
Kilshaw explained that this culture stays with them as they mature into senior players and the wider world of sport is increasingly seeing the impact of wellbeing on performance.
“Wellbeing forms a large part of our performance plan because, first things first, our athletes need to be available to develop the boat,” said Ben Williams, the Head of Performance at Ineos Team UK, in conversation with the Leaders Performance Institute in 2019.
“We’re a technology sport where the technical development is equally as important, if not more than the physiological and we must be holistic in our approach to wellbeing because it’s not just part of our performance plan – it’s foundational.”
“My vision is that this space is seen as important as any other area in high-performance sport,” said Matti Clements upon her appointment as Deputy Director of Wellbeing & Development at the Australian Institute of Sport in January 2018. She 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.”
Raising red flags
As Williams said, Team Ineos UK’s performance team must be ready to react when a red flag is detected, which is far easier and more effective from within a culture of wellbeing. “The first thing we do is talk about it as a performance team. Why is it there? Were we expecting it? Is it something that is based on intrinsic load? Is a family member poorly so he had less sleep?
“We will go through the clinical reasoning as an MDT to devise a pathway; our critical reasoning behind it is to have a couple of pathways before we approach the athlete and we want to have options for the athlete – we don’t want to say ‘we’ll get back to you’. We discuss it with the performance team, what’s the reality of the numbers, what do they actually mean? Do they need to be spoken about or do we need something in place? Can we give somebody some rest or not really discuss it or can we tell them why we’re giving them rest?
“Once we’ve done that amongst our team we’ll then go the athlete and say ‘OK these scores are suggesting we need to change X, Y and Z and we believe that based on this rationale and these are a couple of options for you; how do you feel, what do you want to do, and how does this change sit with you in terms of your current athletic development?’ And then we’ll let them take a lead on it.”
Sometimes, the root of an athlete’s issue can be mental and Clements has overseen the development of the AIS’ 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. It can be a time-intensive method but then we can track the data,” she told an audience at the first Leaders Meet: Wellbeing.
She added: “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.”
Wellbeing and personal development
Wellbeing initiatives can also be linked to education and post-athletic careers. As Clements explained: “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.”
The AIS has also established its Career & Education Practitioner referral network. “That is practitioners who can provide high level expertise on vocational pathways,” she adds. “It’s referral-in and we’ll cover the costs of all podium-plus-level athletes and coaches.”
Interests away from sport are central to Kilshaw’s work at St Helens. He says: “Our academy lads come in on an evening having gone that morning to study a trade or take their A-Levels or whatever it might be. We have lads dotted around a lot of different colleges and sixth-forms; straight away you’re encouraging those lads to have other circles of friends that keep them grounded and they’re used to going into a classroom with other people. That culture stays with them as they mature into senior players.
“Wellbeing begins with being connected to the world beyond sport. We want players to be active instead of sedentary. We want people to connect with people around them, friends and family. In our wellbeing conversations we try to steer them away from rugby by asking ‘how’s the family? How’s the kids? How’s the wife? How are your mates? What did you do at the weekend?’ It’s making them think that rugby is work and to consider what they like doing outside of work.”
There will be no return to the way things were. “I think the days of treating athletes like they’re a vessel for athletic and competitive delivery are gone,” says Williams. “Increasing numbers of athletes are going to be given more autonomy and more technical knowledge [from a culture of education and exposure from an early age as academy’s become more comprehensive] and as that happens I think the inclusion of holistic models will also grow.
“Having a robust technical model that athletes don’t understand or engage with is little use no matter how well it’s delivered. Athletes who are included in decision making, have autonomy over their programme and are educated in the science that underpins the technical model in a way they understand are much more likely to engage with the global programme.
“That holistic model provides a foundation for the technical model in my opinion.”
Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.