March 2023, Articles - Events

Athlete Leaders Network Q+A

The Athlete Leaders Network (ALN) has been formed to strengthen athlete voice and uplift its mana across the sport sector. It supports all athlete groups that enhance athlete voice. ALN’s goal is to provide an independent platform to help grow more sport leaders and educate them in athlete advocacy, so they feel empowered to use their voice and influence change. With a focus on safeguarding and wellbeing of athletes, the ALN will connect sports and its athlete leaders from across the sector to help share learnings, identify gaps and support where needed.

Here, ALN General Manager DJ Forbes hosts a Q+A with athlete representatives Luuka Jones (Canoe Slalom), Marcus Daniell (Tennis), Megan Signal (Weightlifting) and Max Brown (Canoe Sprint).

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Luuka – where do you see ALN playing a part in the sports sector?

Luuka Jones: It’s a beautiful opportunity to have such a diverse range of athletes being able to feed back on decisions and topics and really be able to get our athlete voice across. We’ve got a lot of experience within our group.

Marcus – What are the aspects of ALN that excite you?

Marcus Daniell: The thing I get most excited about is how inclusive it is. There are a lot of sports that are under-resourced and a lot of athletes probably feel like the little guys. ALN means that all athletes right across the board will have an organisation that hopefully they feel they can lean on for support.

Max – do you have any aspirations for ALN?

Max Brown: My little brother does judo, which is a less-funded sport. He won’t say he is lucky – but he is lucky I can share my experiences with him. Being able to help the less-funded sports by sharing learnings is great. My other aspiration is to improve the communication that comes towards athletes, whether it comes from HPSNZ or their individual federation. There are lots of opportunities to communicate better.

Megan – what value has ALN added to you in your sport of weightlifting?

Megan Signal: I knew I had an athlete voice. I knew I had opinions and ideas but I was always too afraid to voice them. It is really important having somewhere where that is supported. I felt very much supported within my domestic federation, and so did my coach. It is great to be able to expand that network.

Luuka – what do you think athletes expect from the sports system, and what is needed?

Luuka Jones: Every athlete probably has different expectations of the system and their leaders. So it is really important to actually ask the athlete what their expectations are, and to have a discussion around whether those expectations can be met. If athletes and leaders are aligned on expectations and those conversations have been had then the accountability lies with both the athlete and the system / leadership.

Max – you made your debut at the Tokyo Olympics. What stood out for you having made that step up into a high performance environment?

Max Brown: It was a huge change to what I experienced before when I just had my club coach. In the high performance environment there is a lot of opportunity but also a lot of information to soak up. The first piece of advice my athlete advisor gave me was to be a sponge, soak up as much as I could and ask lots of questions. That was one of the better things I was told. One thing I have learned is to try to find out what makes your support group tick. Often it is all about you – ‘how can we help Max paddle faster’? But if I figured out what made my sports psyche tick or my athlete advisor tick then I could get the best out of them. So I guess it was about utilising the system I now had available to me.

Marcus – as pro tennis player you’ve mainly looked after yourself, so have only recently been a part of the HPSNZ environment. How have you found it navigating that change?

Marcus Daniell: It is interesting being an outsider for most of my career and then, since Tokyo, seeing inside the HP environment and understanding what resources are available to a lot of athletes in New Zealand. One thing I don’t think I hear enough from the athlete side is the gratitude piece. There actually is quite a good system of support. As far as I’m concerned, coming from having next to nothing, it is like ‘wow this is really cool’. There is good work being done. I have had success doing things myself so the tricky thing for me is ‘why would I want to mess with that’?

Megan – what are some of the things weightlifters are looking for when engaging with leaders in your sport?

Megan Signal: As an athlete in a team environment you just want to feel seen and heard. Each environment is different every time. So at any given moment you just want people to be able to openly communicate, have situations where you can all sit down and talk through whatever you are going through. Some people will be in a great space, others will be really struggling. If the coaches and support staff are all on the same page you just feel lighter. And in my experience when you feel lighter your performance is better.

Megan – you’ve had your fair share of injuries and setbacks. What are some ways to manage the health and wellbeing of athletes who experience that? And what do people need to be mindful of?

Megan Signal: For me it comes down to developing tools to self-regulate. There is a responsibility on athletes to train really hard, manage their nutrition and recovery. Wellbeing needs to sit in that space as well. There should be a responsibility to create, reach out or learn tools to look after your own wellbeing. On the flipside, you need the people who are the support around you to find you those resources.

Marcus – after the Olympics you needed a break due to burnout, and you are now managing a knee injury. What does this year look like when you think about wellbeing and performance with an eye on Paris?

Marcus Daniell: I was burned out even before the Olympics. The tennis tour is 10-and-a-half months on the road and then you get six weeks to go back to base and try to rejuvenate. With covid I didn’t get those six weeks two years in a row. The Olympics was pretty special in a lot of ways. One of those is that it gave me a boost when I really, really needed it. After the Olympics the tennis tour rolled on. I couldn’t get into MIQ so I just kept going and going, getting ground down further and further. I managed to get home at the start of last year. My thinking was to have a couple of months off, recharge the batteries and have another crack. But I buggered my knee and in some ways maybe that was a blessing. Maybe I needed more time to really get my head right. The margins are so fine in high performance sport that if you are not 100 per cent on your game you may as well not be there. Something that really resonates with me is thinking about life after sport while you are still in sport. I have been lucky enough to have a charity I am working on. While I am injured and can’t do much with my knee, every day it gives me a reason to wake up and get at it. Every athlete should have something like that, something that sits alongside sport so you can have those small wins when you suffer those big losses.

Max – when it comes to enhancing performance and enhancing wellbeing, should you focus on one more than the other?

Max Brown: I wouldn’t say it is one over the other. It is about finding people who you resonate with. If you find people you really connect with you feel like you can be vulnerable. With wellbeing, you have to be vulnerable to be able to make changes. And you have to trust someone to be able to do that.

Luca – what’s the best way of ensuring that everyone in an athlete’s support team can play their part effectively and support wellbeing?

Luuka Jones: When I came into high performance sport I was 24 years old. I started working with a lady called Caroline who was my campaign planner. She really took me under her wing and connected me with an amazing group of support people, some of whom I still work with today. The key thing she taught me was to take ownership. She would encourage me to lead meetings with my support team and really take charge of my planning. Because I was involved in all areas, I was accountable for how my performance and planning was going. Because I own my own campaign, I also own my own wellbeing.

Luuka, you’ve been dealing with long covid. Can you share a bit about that?

Luuka Jones: Last year I got covid and it took me a while to recover. I went to Europe and thought I was okay, but I fell off a cliff. I had to come home and missed the entire season. In my entire career I had never missed a race due to injury or illness, so it was a new space to navigate. It was quite scary. I realised my wellbeing so was so wrapped up in just being active and healthy. Even outside of training, all of my hobbies are doing active and outdoor things. So I really had to think about where my wellbeing was going to come from – and who I was without sport. It is so important to have something else – and have those support networks at home.

Max – you’ve previously suffered a back injury that took two years to get over. Tell us about that.

Max Brown: It was pretty rough. I guess it was about finding the right person to help me. The chiropractor I found happened to be a kayaker so he knew a bit about the sport and biomechanics going on. Outside of that support, a lot of it was about getting the fun part right. Like a lot of athletes, I was too focussed on trying to get better and results. Once I got that part right and the right treatment the back started to come right. Having a good life balance was the main change for me to come right.

Marcus – what’s your opinion on wellbeing and performance when we are so invested in the outcome of our events?

Marcus Daniell: This is probably an unpopular opinion. I was at the wellbeing hui last year and one thing I think was being glossed over a bit was the fact that all athletes who get into a high performance programme are there to try to be high performance athletes. Performance is in the name. Forgetting that and focussing purely on wellbeing isn’t actually going to be helpful. They need to be combined. It is a cut-throat business, that is the nature of high performance sport. For me, adding a deeper meaning, a deeper purpose, a bigger ‘why’ has completely changed my perspective on sport. For me it is donating to charity and pledging a percentage of my income. That means that every success I have is a success for something bigger than myself. Whatever it is for each athlete, I feel strongly that having a deeper purpose to a sporting career goes a huge way towards increasing wellbeing.

Megan – if you walked into an HP environment as a 20-year-old today what would be the ideal set-up?

I entered the sport very isolated. I just thought it was an individual sport, so that is what you do. I isolated myself a lot, to be fair. I was very blinkered. I don’t know if I did it the hard way but I definitely learned through experience that that approach will only get you so far. So if I were to re-enter the sport again from the start I would curate a support network around me. Being able to create those groups where you can talk about what you are going through has been a huge performance enhancer for me. If I get stuck in my own head, I get out of it by hearing about someone else’s experience. I feel more connected with them and want to help them along the way. I think maybe that is something that is missed – the importance of creating a community.

New Zealand's D J Forbes runs the ball in the match V Spain during the Hertz Wellington Rugby Sevens - Day 2, 2 February 2013 Photo: Grant Down /