My take is that sledging is deliberately designed to disrupt player focus in the hope that it will impact performance. As a performance strategy it can be extremely effective. It can also be an effective stress relief and build connection amongst teammates.
So what’s the problem?
It’s not the tool; it’s the tradie.
In the wrong hands the strategy gets misused, the mark is overstepped, and we see harm being done. This is when sledging is a problem, particularly if you have vulnerable players on the field. Some words are easy to laugh or brush off, while others hit the mark. When the right words connect we feel the pain physically. Whether it’s physical or psychological harm, the same pain receptors in the brain fire in to action.
The difficulty is that while we know that a left hook or a high tackle or a cricket ball to the head is going to hurt like hell, we don’t always know how much of a punch our words pack.
A good coach will look at the physical vulnerability of players and decide if they need to be protected from further injury or harm by limiting their training load and or playing time. They provide the medical and coaching support they need to recover and repair and get back to match fitness.
Good coaches should do exactly the same for players with mental health issues. They need to listen to the player and their medical/mental health team and weigh up the risk of an acute lapse or long-term harm versus short-term performance goals.
The problem is that players with mental health issues are battling the stigma of appearing “weak”, so often don’t let the right people know what they are experiencing until it is too late. It is a gender/cultural issue that needs addressing. Strong men know when to ask for and seek support. Tough guys cover up their vulnerabilities and hide behind their persona.
As a community I think we also have a responsibility to notice what is happening to our teammates, colleagues and friends. Mental illness comes with signs and symptoms. Often we will notice something is not quite right – they are more short tempered, or don’t answer their phone, or drink or gamble more often – but do nothing about it because we are unsure what to say or do. Learning how to ask one simple question can make all the difference – R U OK?. You don’t seem to be yourself mate, R U OK? These kinds of conversations change and sometimes save lives.
In the playground we like to see kids play, we want lighthearted banter, but we don’t want to see bullying and intimidation. Growing up is all about learning where the boundaries lie, sometimes we go to far and our peers, parents, coaches and teachers are there to guide us back. Maybe that is what the media furore over the Clarke/Anderson and Warner/Trott incidents serve to do right now – to guide us back. To helps us see the light and dark side of our language and to recognise when it does more harm than good.
I think most of us love to see our sporting heroes and teams win but better to do it with courage, skill, good-natured banter and respect, rather than intimidation and bullying.
The wisdom is in knowing when to throw another verbal punch and when to hold back.
Dr Jo Mitchell is the AFL Players’ Association Wellbeing Services Manager and is a co-founder of The Mind Room.