PLAYING THE FIELD WITH HOCKEYROOS’ PLAYER AND LONDON OLYMPIAN ASHLEIGH NELSON THE REAL ISSUE OF SPORTSMANSHIP AND THE OLYMPIC IDEALS WHEN ATHLETES ARE INDIFFERENT TO REPRESENTING THEIR COUNTRY AT THE GAMES
I write this piece as a previous Olympian, an athlete with minimal financial benefit from her sport, an injured athlete now unable to compete, and a former country girl longing to win an Olympic gold medal.
“It should be a fight to make an Australian Olympic team and if the spot is given up so easily, then it never really meant that much in the first place.” Loudy Wiggins – Diver & dual Olympic medalist.
Tennis Sets A Wrong Example
Despite the forthcoming focus on the recent controversy created by Australian tennis player Nick Kyrios, please don’t be confused, as this article really isn’t about him. His recent escapade is merely a vehicle to discuss the frustrations of an athlete who could have potentially lost their opportunity to compete to athletes for whom the Olympics is nothing more than a possible calendar event. It is a reflection on how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has undermined itself and its values by selling its soul and pushing out the little guy.
I don’t know Kyrios personally and therefore can’t make a call on who he is and what he stands for as a person. Having said that, I am open in my views that his on-court conduct, as an athlete, is very difficult to support or condone. All athletes have their moments – usually when poor execution and dubious umpiring collide. What is clear is his apparent inability to contain those frustrations, or at the very least challenge the umpire in a respectful manner. I have no doubt that over the course of my career I have probably cast a few filthy stares, argued about a decision during the course of a game, or criticized decisions after the final whistle. I can, however, categorically say I have never threatened an umpire, let alone made crude remarks about my opponent’s relationship status. I haven’t done this because I know that it won’t get me anywhere. I will lose focus as to what’s actually important. It would reflect poorly on myself and my team mates and, during periods of clarity, I truly understand how hard and unrewarding umpiring is.
Why is tennis even in the Olympics?
Indifference to the Games
So, when Kyrios said that he didn’t want to be a part of the Australian Olympic team at Rio, the fact that he wasn’t going didn’t really have any impact on me, although I thought it might be one less athlete the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) might have to deal with. What did annoy me though was that even going to Rio and an Olympics games is essentially a choice for some athletes.
From an athlete’s point of view – hockey specifically – where the Olympics is the absolute pinnacle of your sporting career, it’s a milestone event that we work towards for a large portion of our life, only to potentially get one shot at winning a gold medal. Some are luckier than others and have a career that spans a few Olympics, but for many of us, this doesn’t transpire, either through non-selection or injury. (In my case, both, with my recent ACL tear 100 days out from Rio.)
Play The Game or Get off the Field
If I had been reprimanded like Kyrios because of my on-field behavior, and had to explain myself to Australia’s Chef de Mission, Kitty Chiller, in response to a 14 page letter, I can assure you I would have been there front and centre pleading for the opportunity to have my shot. I would be doing that because I wouldn’t want previous on field/court indiscretions to be the reason I didn’t achieve a life long dream.
The fact that he doesn’t feel this way about needing to play perhaps isn’t actually a reflection of his own personal attitude about the Olympics, but a reflection of the comparative importance of tennis at the Olympics.
This “Olympic option” mentality isn’t just limited to tennis players.
This brings me to the crux of this article.
Why is tennis even in the Olympics?
I am not a tennis player, but from what I gather, the height of a tennis player’s career isn’t an Olympic gold medal. By all accounts, most of the tennis players we hear from these days tell stories about their childhood dream of growing up to be a Grand Slam winner taking out all four slams in one year. Sure some of them may have aspired to go to an Olympics growing up (Kyrios even said this in a interview at some point), but given a choice between four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal I am confident which one any tennis player would choose.
Kyrios isn’t alone on the tennis front however with two other players in the top 23 ATP tennis rankings also opting out of the Olympics. Both Bernard Tomic (Australia) and Dominic Thiem (Austria) have chosen to play in an ATP event in Mexico being held at the same time as the Rio Olympics. As many are probably aware this “Olympic option” mentality isn’t just limited to tennis players. Golfers Adam Scott and former number one Vijah Singh, have also turned down the opportunity to play in Rio.
Sportsmanship or Foul Play
Readers may think I am taking a swipe at all these listed athletes for opting out. I however have great respect for their choice, if they are making this decision to focus on the events that mean the most to them; it’s what dedicated athletes do. What makes my blood boil is that the IOC has allowed sports like golf and tennis to be a part of the program when clearly many of their athletes don’t hold the Olympics in the highest regards.
Coming from a sport where we commit ourselves to training for the Olympics throughout our career it breaks my heart to think of the athletes who have missed their one opportunity, while watching others compete for a medal they are indifferent about.
Who are the true superstars?
I understand we live in a society where sponsorship dominates the majority of decisions that are made in regards to hosting an event. With that in mind, it is no wonder the Olympics love having superstars like Roger Federer (I even got a photo with him in London 2012) to promote their event. But why do we need superstars like this when they have at their disposal true Olympic and highly marketable champions like Usain Bolt, Anna Meares and Michael Phelps, to name a few. This point aside I am confident in saying Olympics markets itself – you either watch it or you live under a rock for two weeks.
I don’t agree with how Kyrios behaves on court – it isn’t my cup of tea and I think it reflects poorly on him and potentially the Australian team. But what I really don’t agree with is when sports where the Olympics Games isn’t a priority for the athletes career are included.
Going to an Olympics shouldn’t be a choice about if you can fit it into your playing schedule. Speaking as an Olympic athlete – your schedule is dictated by the Olympics. Any sport that has athletes that don’t fit these criteria shouldn’t be in consideration.
FORMER AUSTRALIAN TEAM HOCKEY PLAYER CONTEMPLATES HOW TO TRANSITION TO A SECOND CAREER TO BECOME MORE THAN AN ATHLETE
Australian sports stars battles mental illness. It’s a headline known all to well to the public in recent times; a headline most commonly associated with Ben Cousins and Grant Hackett due to their significant profile. With this much media attention and the recent Crossing the Line Summit focusing on athlete transition, it begs the question; how can we help our athletes maintain their mental health when transitioning to life after sport?
I had nothing outside of hockey to think about or give me purpose
I write this article, not as a professional in the field of psychology but rather an athlete who is currently in the much maligned “transition phase”. It’s a phase that came significantly earlier than I had hoped for; due to injury right before the Rio Olympics, but in sport the opportunity to retire when you are ready and prepared is for the fortunate.
Career ending injuries and non-selection are two experiences athletes know all too well and should expect as it is a reality of our occupation. Seeing we can never really know when our time is up, I am a firm believer that transition needs to start at the onset of one’s athletic career.
It is quite easy to lose sight of who and what else you actually are
Let’s keep in mind that no matter how many interventions and prevention strategies we put into place there will always be a percentage of athletes that will develop a mental health condition. Athlete are not exempt from the reality that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. This heart breaking statistic shouldn’t stop us however from helping our athletes in a phase of their life when stress, anxiety and a lack of direction is very real and prominent.
I have offered some ideas on strategies below, which I feel are important for athletes to consider at the start of their career. You might agree or disagree but if it triggers a conversation it will go some way to helping athletes find their new path.
Be more than an athlete
From early in my career the phrase: “oh you’re the hockey player”, was one that I heard on a regular basis. It didn’t particularly phase me at the time but upon reflection, after years of only associating yourself with being an athlete, it is quite easy to lose sight of who and what else you actually are.
In 2008, while training for the Beijing Olympic Games I literally gave everything up – my work and studying to be an Occupational Therapist as well as socialising as much as I normally would. Needless to say when I started to perform poorly I had nothing outside of hockey to think about or give me purpose.
When I wasn’t selected to be part of the Olympic team, I lost the one thing that, at the time, defined me as a person. As a result my mental well being and health suffered. I was never diagnosed with depression but it was one of the most unnerving, confusing and stressful periods of my life.
It is vital we assist these athletes from the outset become more than an athlete so when their career is taken away their identity doesn’t go with it
If I was going to have longevity and be happy when I no longer was an athlete finding purpose outside of sport was imperative. When I finished my degree in Occupational Therapy in 2009, I worked casually as a carer, started public speaking and became involved with R U OK? I was building a life around being an athlete so I was not just identified as a hockey player but rather a person in the community who excelled at sport but had more to offer.
I am fortunate that I learned this would be a key factor to being happy later in my career—who would have thought non-selection would have been a good thing! Not all athletes are lucky to have this self awareness. It is vital we assist these athletes from the outset become more than an athlete so when their career is taken away their identity doesn’t go with it.
2. Coaches and athletes finding the balance
One of the biggest relationships an athlete will have in their playing career will be with their coach. It is often a love – hate relationship, which is typical in any close relationship. I have been very fortunate in my time to have been coached by some exceptional coaches, and know just how hard their job must be. What I have also found, however, that there are times when coaches—and some athletes—think more is more when training is concerned.
More value needs to be placed on the mentality; “better people, make better players”. It’s a quote from the book Legacy, which identifies why the All Blacks have been so successful and one that I firmly believe in.
I feel that most coaches understand and agree with this notion but few actively encourage athletes to be accomplished outside the sporting field. Imagine from day one receiving encouragement and opportunity around training to explore outside pursuits for personal growth? Not only would athletes bring new skills to their sporting pursuit but we would see far more athletes finishing their sporting career with alternative career options. A balance must of course be found here, it is no good to have outside pursuits which impact on sports performance when being an athlete is the priority.
With athletes placing great importance on the advice and guidance of their coaches, they therefore have a profound responsibility in encouraging action; while the athlete has the responsibility of taking action.
Being made to feel guilty about engaging in other activities outside of hockey was the bane of my existence. Just because athletes don’t think about the game 100% of time doesn’t meant they aren’t committed. Don’t let your athletes get to the end of their athletic career without having had some “real world experience” whether it be establishing a hobby, becoming a volunteer or a paid job outside of sport.
3. Do we need to establish a physical exit strategy?
We all know the link between exercise and endorphins. After tearing my ACL I went from training six days a week to sitting immobile every day on a couch for an extended period of time. As much as I don’t like running, I noticed very quickly that my body and mind wasn’t too happy about the amount of couch time and no matter how many episodes of Suits I watched my mood wasn’t getting any better. Fortunately rehabilitation started fairly quickly and I was back into an exercise regime, which was more than enough to satisfy my need for activity.
It did however get me thinking that for athletes conditioned over several years to large and intense periods of training, that they need help to prepare them for life after their athletic career to adjust their bodies to less activity?
Will you have a trainer? Do you have a gym you can access? What will you do to be able to motivate yourself to exercise? After years of being in a team, do you need to exercise with others? How might your body change physically with a reduction in training?
Thinking about these questions and having a plan from the outset can help when things go pear shaped. An action plan is a very commonly used strategy to help those who regularly struggle with maintaining their mental health and can be adapted to these situations.
4. Conversations without penalty
As athletes one thing that certainly doesn’t help during our transition is our inability to communicate about how we are feeling psychologically. Communicating how we are feeling is not something that we regularly practice through fear of non-selection or being seen as not “mentally tough”. The sad thing is that for many players by the time they are showing signs of significant mental health problems who are confronted with non-selection the best they can hope for is a supportive partner and family.
We need to get to a point where we create a sporting environment to talk about how we are feeling psychologically just as commonly as how we are feeling physically. Regular check-ins where all athletes feel comfortable to discuss their thoughts can be a great help in de-escalating many situations – an simple RUOK strategy. I have no doubt if I had discussed my self-deprecating thought process during the 2008 period earlier, then I might not have come as close to giving it all away.
By being more in touch with both our body and mind throughout our career we may be able to recognise mental health issues earlier and feel comfortable seeking assistance after our career has ended.
Does the lack of financial support in women’s sport means female athletes are more successful in transitioning to a career outside of sport?
If you’re a coach, parent and athlete, ask the question—what could I be doing now in preparation for the end of my career? See it like superannuation; the more you invest early in your career the more prepared and better off you will be when end your career and most need it.
I would also encourage further investigation into why so many of our athletes with public mental health battles are men? Is it because they are in a high profile sport therefore their battle is newsworthy? Do men turn to more public acts, which prominently display their mental illness? Or does the lack of financial support in women’s sport means female athletes are more successful in transitioning to a career outside of sport?
In time I am sure we will offer more support to our athletes and we might edge a little closer to answering these questions. In the meantime, let’s get the transition process started earlier and help our athletes understand they have much more to offer off the field.
Who would have thought 100 days till Rio would be so significant?
In an athlete’s mind it was a clear reminder that we had 100 days to perfect those last few skills, 100 days to finalise structures and 100 days till the team was 100% ready to take the field.
The last thing that I thought it would mean was 100 days of rehab and 100 days of knowing that I wouldn’t be going to the Olympics.
As magical as sport can be, it can be equally brutal, something that most athletes know all to well. Sadly as fate would have it 100 days out from the Rio Olympics I tore my Anterior Cruciate Ligament during an intra-squad game for the Hockeyroos.
Above: My partner Aaron and I once I came out of surgery. One of the rare moments where I could keep my eyes open.
It was such an innocuous incident with my right knee giving way as I planted my foot to pass the ball. In hindsight I wish I had been selfish and ignored my free teammate, but clearly my time of having an intact ACL was up. As you can see in the video below it was a remarkably unspectacular event, which is sure to get no more than 10 views on you tube.
For those who have not had the pleasure of tearing their ACL, along with their lateral and medial meniscus, with a dose of torn hamstring in there too; well …….. it bloody hurts. Tears were not shed given there was no room for them, amidst the groans and expletives that were pouring out of my mouth (fortunately not captured on camera).
It was a confusing couple of minutes for me, unsure if I had dislocated my kneecap (which would have been preferable) or torn my ACL. After tearing my ACL in my left knee in 2004 at age 17, I knew that if this was the case then my dream of a second Olympics was over. It may have been the adrenaline or the sheer will to prove that I hadn’t torn my ACL, but soon after the incident I got up and walked off the field with minimal discomfort.
Trying to keep composed I followed Eddie Maguire’s advice and phoned a friend (more specifically my Mum) to take me to the Sports Physician and to get scans to see the true damage. Still trying to play the injury down, I thought it best to help myself to a bowl of sultana bran while watching the rest of the game.
Sadly despite my best efforts my composure and positivity about the whole situation came to a grinding halt. Tests by the Sports Physician indicating a positive full ACL rupture were confirmed by a MRI shortly after.
Being a relatively positive person, I have had many people query if this upset me at all. Short answer is ABSOLUTELY. How could one not be upset?
Since age 5 I have been playing hockey, making my first state team at 14 years and then debuting for the Hockeyroos at 21. That means that I have dedicated 15 years of my life training at a state or international level all with the aim of playing at the Olympics Games. To then not have the opportunity to test and put into place everything that you have worked so hard for is heart breaking. What’s more frustrating is that nothing I do will change the outcome. No matter how hard I rehab, no matter how much I want it, I will not be ready for Rio and that reality is what really hurts.
My leg post surgery taking a rare break from the splint which was my main fashion accessory for 2 -3 weeks post op.
Something that sport has taught me however is resilience. The last few weeks have just been a moment in time albeit a difficult one. What I do know is that I have had moments like this before and have found a way forward to not only be a better hockey player but a better member of society. Hockey is a huge part of my life and will continue to be, however it is not who I am. These next few months will be dedicated to helping the Hockeyroos group I dearly love achieve our team goal, start on my road to rehab and explore different ways and means of remaining involved in women’s sport.
If you’re keen to hear about the intricacies of an ACL rehabilitation then follow my “Road to Rehab” series where I will write what my focuses are week by week, the physical and mental obstacles of rehab life and exercises that I am doing to regain function and fitness. This may be a good tool for those who are also in rehabilitation for an ACL repair, those who work in the area of exercise physiology or people who simply want to know what it takes for an athlete to come back from an extensive injury.