The Catch: Balancing Mental Health, Wellbeing and Performance

“To put your hand up is actually a sign of strength”: What athletes can teach us about balancing mental health with high performance.

Published Wed, Nov 17, 2021

Throughout the pandemic we know that uncertainty and anxiety increased in workplaces all over the country and mirrored the difficult circumstances our athletes were facing. Their performance prompts the question – how did our sporting teams perform so remarkably well despite the uncertainties they were facing? What lessons can we as business leaders take from our Olympians in how to deliver world-class performance under the most trying circumstances?

No-one knows more about pressure than this year’s Olympics athletes.

Between postponed dates and a global atmosphere of uncertainty, Australia’s Olympic and Paralympic teams faced more challenges the months leading up to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics than most of us could imagine. And yet, they showed up – and achieved one of the most successful Games in our country’s history. So, how did they do it? How did they perform to the standard they did, while also taking care of their own mental health? And what can leaders in the business community learn from those who coach our sporting heroes to glory?

To find out, CMHAA board member Melinda Upton sat down with Ian Robson, CEO of Rowing Australia; Josephine Sukkar AM, Chairman of the Australian Sports Commission, President of Australian Women’s Rugby and Principal of Buildcorp; and Steven Worrall, Managing Director of Microsoft Australia and New Zealand and CMHAA Chair.

Watch The Catch: Balancing Mental Health, Wellbeing and Performance below. Or, read on for some highlights from this fascinating discussion.

“As Australians, we want our leaders to be as much among us as above us. We need someone to blow the whistle, but when it’s time to go, we know we’re all going together.”

Ian Robson

Show up with authenticity

Having served as CEO of some of Australia’s most beloved and high-performing sports teams, including Hawthorn and Essendon AFL clubs, before joining Rowing Australia, Ian Robson’s career has taught him a thing or two about leadership.

“As Australians, we want our leaders to be as much among us as above us,” Robson told his fellow panellists. “We need someone to blow the whistle, but when it’s time to go, we know we’re all going together.”

Robson believes that, given Australia’s ‘in it together’ culture, the best way leaders can encourage their people to talk about and prioritise their mental health is by doing it themselves. “I’ve learned that it’s okay to say to my leadership team colleagues, ‘I’m struggling at the moment – I’m feeling really stretched and I need some help’,” he said. “We want our athletes to trust and believe that there are really significant resources and networks around to support them, and that to put your hand up is actually a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.”

Whether the teams in question are at Buildcorp or in the sporting arena, Josephine Sukkar couldn’t agree more.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be, ‘I am vulnerable and here I am’,” she said. “It can just be showing up exactly the same predictable way in scary times.”

Sukkar shared a story with the panel that, for her, encapsulates the power of this approach. “When we first went into lockdown, Tony and I jumped onto our iPads to make a video message,” she said. “And it was a clumsy message, as you can imagine with 62-year-old Tony and 57-year-old Josephine – it wasn’t smooth. But apparently, it was authentic because it was so bad. [The Buildcorp team] know that whenever it’s smooth, there’s usually someone from the marketing team or someone external managing that.

“Interestingly, being vulnerable sometimes is just being yourself.”

Josephine Sukkar AM

image for Empower people to choose their own course and

Empower people to choose their own course

Transitioning back to everyday life after a high-stakes event can be a challenging experience for all athletes. Which is why, when the Australian Olympic and Paralympic teams returned home from their respective Games, Rowing Australia thought long and hard about how to best support them. “Some athletes climb the walls,” said Robson. “Others find it a welcome reprieve that the pressure is off and it’s just an opportunity to have some time on their own.” This difference in athletes’ experiences, he explained, ultimately drove Robson’s organisation to take a flexible approach in the way it rolled out support. “Rather than saying it was a one-size-fits-all for every single athlete, it was: ‘Here are the principles and the techniques, you choose off the menu the things that are going to work best for you’. “So, if you want to dial into the trivia call at seven o’clock, or if you just want to sit back and enjoy the solitude, you make the call. And everyone’s emerged from that process in really good shape.” Sukkar agreed that the key thing sport and business leaders can do in challenging times is to empower people to choose their own course. “The best way you can make employees feel psychologically safe is if they feel they’re in control of their lives,” she said.

Normalise the difficult conversations

Australia’s elite athletes are a small group of people, with lives that are very different to the majority of ours. Yet they carry our hopes and dreams on their shoulders, representing our country and the ambition of its people on the world stage. We watch them closely because what they do matters.

As Sukkar said to the panel, “sport is just a microcosm of the whole community”. And if this is the case, we at the CMHAA sense change in the air.

From Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka, more athletes are opening up about their mental health and prioritising self-care than ever before. In doing so, they are normalising conversations about wellbeing that are long overdue – and teaching us some important lessons that we can bring to our own workplaces too.

All images courtesy of Rowing Australia


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