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November 2019, Athlete Life

Athletes talk wellbeing

Wellbeing was the focus of the latest Athlete & Alumni Workshop held by HPSNZ’s Athlete Life team in Auckland. Within the high performance environment, wellbeing is recognised as a critical enabler of performance. Wellbeing, in this context, can be thought of as athletes being able to lead fulfilling lives, with purpose, balance and meaning. A panel of current and former athletes shared their insights on athlete wellbeing at the event. A recurring theme of the discussion was the importance of athletes having a life outside of sport. Participating athletes reported that it was valuable to hear from other athletes, one saying: “It reinforces the importance of having a wellbeing game plan to help ease transition pains.”

Insights from the panellists

Casey Henwood, Jo Aleh, Josh Hawkins, Fiona Southorn, Pippa Hayward
Jo Aleh, Olympic Champion

470 sailor Jo Aleh admitted that her life for many years was, “training, training, training.” She thought she didn’t have time for most other things at the peak of her sailing career. “Now I look back and think, what was I doing? Of course I would have had time.”
Having found transitioning to life off the water far from easy, Jo is a convert to the idea that athletes should have something else in their lives.

“If someone had told me to prepare for life after sport, I probably wouldn’t have listened,” she says. “Perhaps hearing it from another athlete may have been powerful.”

Her other piece of advice for the next generation of athletes is to speak up when there is a problem, as opposed to internalising it. Jo says it took her a long time to be able to admit when she needed help. At the test event in Rio a year out from the Olympics, she caught a debilitating stomach bug. She tried to stubbornly soldier on but eventually crashed, unable to even exercise.

“When people asked me how I was, I’d say: ‘FINE’… Now I know what FINE is. It’s freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional.”

Looking back, Jo is grateful that she learned to seek support from the Sports Psychology team and her Athlete Life Advisor, Karin Adelinger-Smith.
She learned to create more balance in her life and made a conscious effort to switch off from the demands of sport.

Pippa Hayward, Olympic Black Stick

Pippa Hayward was a member of the gold medal winning Black Sticks at the 2018 Commonwealth Games last year. She retired from hockey soon afterwards and now knows firsthand that elite sport inevitably finishes one day.

“With support like Prime Minister’s Scholarships available, there is no reason not to prepare for life after sport,” she says. “Ensure that something is ticking along. It puts you in control, and in sport, a lot is not within your control.”

Pippa found that studying and working as an athlete gave her confidence, made her more well-rounded. When she retired from hockey in 2018, it was no accident that she was already prepared for life after sport. As an HPSNZ Prime Minister’s scholarship recipient, Pippa had gained a conjoint degree in Law and Arts, and obtained employment as a solicitor at Meredith Connell. Her longstanding belief that it was important to have something outside of hockey paid dividends.

But succeeding at sport and developing a high-powered career all at the same time didn’t come without its challenges. Like many athletes, Pippa had, to overcome injuries, de-selection, and anxiety at various times during her sporting career. One of the tools she found helpful is the mindfulness app, Headspace. She also likes to apply the ‘law of opposites’: “It sounds simple but I find that it works for me. If I’m sad, I think about what makes me happy.  If I’m feeling anxious, I think of something that will relax me, i.e. I watch my favourite movie before I go to sleep.”

Pippa’s advice is to make sure the various pillars of life, like education, friends & family, etc. are all being looked after. “Set it up before problems arise. If one falls over, the others are there, keeping you going.”

Casey Henwood, Olympic Black Stick

Having been a teacher, banker and currently the Lead National Partnership Manager at Sport NZ, Casey Henwood now looks back on his hockey career through an experienced lens. His advice to today’s athletes: “Squeeze as much knowledge and expertise as you possibly can from your Athlete Life Advisor.”

During his hockey career, he initially measured his wellbeing against his performance, but became such a perfectionist that it ended up being to his detriment.

“I was neglecting other aspects of my wellbeing,” Casey says. “My Athlete Life Advisor helped me realise I needed more balance and ultimately reconnect with ‘the why’.”

Casey says he eventually learnt to stop worrying about consequences, something he still applies in his post-athletic career. “Now when I need to de-stress, I go skateboarding with the kids. It’s my favourite thing in the world to do.”

Fiona Southorn, Paralympic bronze medallist

Fiona represented New Zealand in cycling at the at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Paralympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the C5 individual pursuit in London, all the while working as a successful real estate agent in Northland. The highs and lows of life along the way helped Fiona to develop a range of wellbeing strategies.

“It’s very important to keep friends and family connected, but also put limits around socializing so you get enough sleep,” she said.

Fiona acknowledged that there had been many people who’d helped her along the way, and thanked her Athlete Life Advisor of many years, adding, “Karin Adelinger-Smith was there for me right through.”

Josh Hawkins, New Zealand Hurdler

Josh Hawkins figured out how to thrive, while juggling multiple responsibilities: competing for New Zealand, completing a Masters in Geography, and working part time. His secret, he says, is, “rather than look at everything on my plate, just look at each thing individually, breaking it down into individual moments.”

He is currently working as an archives assistant at Mainfreight and looking for full time opportunities that will allow him to continue training.

Te Whare Tapa Wha

Members of the Athlete Life team reminded athletes they are there to support their wellbeing development, and reflected on the four pillars of the Te Whare Tapa Wha wellbeing model:

  1. Mental and Emotional Wellbeing: The capacity to express thoughts, feelings and emotions. How we see ourselves in this universe and the perception that others have of us.
  2. Physical Wellbeing: The capacity for physical growth and development. Relates to our physical wellness and bodily care, but also our physical environment.
  3. Social Wellbeing: The capacity to belong to care and to share. How we relate and communicate with others.
  4. Spiritual Wellbeing: The capacity for faith and wider communication. Who and what we are, what gives meaning to our lives.

Athlete Life Advisor Carolyn Donaldson explained: “On a scale of 1-10 – where 1 is surviving and 10 is thriving –consider where you are at with each pillar and where you would like to be.”

The event concluded with the reminder that:

Nurturing yourself is not selfish – it’s essential to your survival and your wellbeing. Every day may not be good but there is something good in every day.