June 2020,

Athlete Voice

There is a growing trend amongst athletes to let their voices be heard. When the state of world sport was recently being considered, the International Director of Play the Game said:

“One of the most important challenges of the next decade will be to develop the forms in which athletes can best express their individual and collective visions, negotiate their disagreements, and influence the decisions that decide the future course of sport.” -Jens Sejer Andersen

HPSNZ’s Athlete Life team are involved in a number of athlete voice initiatives. Head of Athlete Life, Chris Arthur says the voice of athletes has never been more needed.  “Sports leaders don’t always understand the athlete perspective,” she says. “We need to keep athlete wellbeing at the front of the discussion and remember that athletes are the essential resource that allows the industry to thrive. This requires strong athlete voice.”

Athlete Life Advisors encourage athletes to speak out and support a number of athletes making a difference in their sports.

Senior swimmers have collaborated with Swimming NZ to create an athlete voice and leadership group – the Athlete Leadership Group (ALG). Athlete Life Advisor and Olympic swimmer Hannah McLean was invited to help the swimmers shape up a vision for the group. “We had a series of workshops to develop the terms of reference and ways of working,” she says. “It has been important to take our time, consult with other sports and experts and come up with the best modus operandi for athlete voice in swimming. We have a superb group leader in Parlympic bronze medalist Rebecca Dubber who is doing an excellent job and brings the group together.”

Olympic skier Beau-James Wells has become the Chair of the Athlete Leadership Committee for Snow Sports NZ, established to enhance athlete voice throughout the organisation. “It’s been really positive and things are happening as a result,” he says. Beau-James is supported by his Athlete Life Advisor Carol Goodlass. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her expertise,” he says

Olympic cyclist Rushlee Buchanan is the chair of the Athlete’s Voice Committee (AVC) at Cycling NZ. Their purpose is to be a voice for athletes, providing a trusted communication pathway to the top level. “I endeavour to be a courageous leader and learn along the way,” she says. Rushlee is also passionate about athlete wellbeing. She is creating a buddy system that links senior and junior athletes. “Using my athlete mindset, I take the same feverishness and rigour to this role.” When she needs support, her Athlete Life Advisor Christina Jacklin is on hand. Rushlee says the AVC has made significant progress. “We’ve brought forward ideas on pivotal issues within the sport and our voice has been welcomed by the Cycling NZ Board.”

While athlete voice efforts are growing, there are still barriers to overcome. Elite athletes are extremely busy training and competing and athlete voice responsibilities may seem like a distraction they don`t need. Some athletes don`t trust that involvement won’t influence selection decisions. There are young athletes who may be oblivious to the political context and more experienced ones who have already given so much they are ready to move on.  Without athlete voices around the table, critical information may be missing, Chris Arthur says. “Athletes bring a unique perspective and should be able to feel safe to express their concerns, needs and desires so everyone benefits.”

“Plus, athletes who volunteer for leadership groups will gain credibility and skills that will allow them to succeed in their lives beyond sport,” she adds. “It is a way of being mentored into the business world as well as protecting their own interests and that of their fellow athletes.”

As well as influencing their own arena, athletes also have a growing appetite for influencing society at large. Sporting icons like Israel Adesanya have spoken up against discrimination. Olympic pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney is one of a number of athletes encouraging New Zealanders to take positive action against climate change.

Chris Arthur points out that the era of silence is over. “Whether athletes are talking about the running of their sport or challenging wider social issues, athletes of today are speaking up. And it’s time to listen.”

“Athletes of all kinds will likely be at the heart of the sports political agenda of the 2020s, and their working range may stretch well beyond sport itself,” says Jens Sejer Andersen.