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Sport important to building mental health and wellbeing literacy

Over the past decade, Psychologist Jodii Maguire has worked with elite sport and community sport clubs to assist them with mental health and wellbeing.

During this time, she has seen some positive change in the way mental health and wellbeing is approached in sport but believes we can keep improving in this space.

Jodii said the biggest difference between how elite sport and community sport were dealing with mental health and wellbeing came down to funding.

“It costs money to educate and train people. Our state and national sporting clubs are often run as businesses and because there is more money in elite level sport, they are getting better at putting a budget to mental health, and they are spending it,” she said.

“Community clubs are fundamentally run on a volunteer base. I think it is harder for them to bring people into the clubs after hours, to do this kind of education and training and to build the policies, procedures and the wellbeing and mental health frameworks that they need.

“If the government was going to spend some money on mental health, I think sport, and in particular community, would be a great place to invest that money because it’s one of the widest reaching areas for young people.

“Imagine if we were spending money educating coaches and clubs at that grassroots level and really creating that mental health literacy and framework in junior sports clubs? Over time, that intergenerational education will go a long way to helping create better mental health outcomes for the communities of the future.

“Sport is one of the most common activities that young people are doing, beside school. Schools do some of this work but I think sport is the place where we find more opportunities to access today’s young minds and as an added bonus we get to capture the parents as well.”

Jodii believes sport has an important role to play in the world of mental health and wellbeing.

“There is a lot of pressure on young people today, it may come from school, family expectations, holding part-time jobs and of course the online world, but we know whatever we are doing in life there is high pressure – but young people can turn to sport, particularly community sport for kids, teens and young adults, as an outlet,” Jodii said.

“Sport does have a really important role to play in being a place or space where people can go and have fun, perform, stretch themselves, push themselves, get fit, hang with friends, all of those kinds of things. I think it is a vital role for not only teens, but for adults.”

Over the past five years, Jodii has seen an increase in enquiries from community sporting clubs seeking assistance in the mental health and wellbeing space.

“I get asked a lot to come and talk to sports clubs or to work with their administration and volunteer team on how to set up sporting wellbeing policies and procedures. I think you’ve got to have some policies around mental health and wellbeing for when something does happen.”

Jodii said sporting clubs needed to have a process to deal with mental health and wellbeing matters so everyone knew what do to, if required.

“You need to be really, really clear on that because we know there is still a little bit of a stigma around mental health and wellbeing. You are going to get better outcomes by having a process rather than being ad hoc or erratic in the way we approach that.”

Jodii said the three keys are policies and procedures, training for the administration, volunteers and parents and then training for coaches.

“Once you’ve got the administration or the club, the coaches and the parents involved then you can start talking to the kids in a junior club,” Jodii said.

“If you can talk to them and train them in that kind of language then you have covered all the bases and you are actually creating a higher level of mental health literacy. The goal is to create a greater understanding of wellbeing and mental health literacy and the same language or a very similar language which we all know what we are talking about, that way we get good outcomes.”

Jodii said as sport stars keep discussing their mental health in the media, awareness about the topic would continue to increase.
“It is about being able to give the athlete space from their performance to be able to talk about that and that might be outside the club, it might be again through training, understanding what they are going through or feeling and why they might not be performing,” she said.

“I think there is also a bit of a curse in sport in that we use the term mental toughness a lot.

“An athlete is often thinking about how can I say that I am not feeling great and that I’m stressed or that I’ve got a mental health concern yet, be mentally tough. Athletes can find this area a challenge to navigate as they feel it may impact their selection or how they are perceived.”

She said the curse around mental toughness can be exaggerated by sporting hubs and bubbles.

“Players don’t always know how to push their needs in mental health when the language, particularly during COVID has been celebrating how resilient, mentally tough and strong the athletes have been.

“If they are not feeling well, how do they go to a club representative or their coach and say I’m not feeling great.

“I’m a huge advocate for supporting the move to put mental health and wellbeing front and centre, alongside performance outcomes and help athletes to put this at the top of their agenda.

“Some clubs are doing this very really well. We have to do it and we have to have courage and be brave at times to make sure these conversations are happening.

“I’m not sure we are there yet but all of us in professional sport, no matter what our role is, must make sure we remember athletes are people first.”


By. Steve Glover

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