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Where’s your head at?

In the 17th century a philosopher by the name of Descartes, argued for the separation between mind and body as two distinct entities. This mind-body dualism has dogged western culture ever since, although last time I checked my head and body were firmly connected, unlike the less fortunate Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. One of the consequences of this mind-body dualism has been a much stronger focus on the body, and a slower integration of mind sciences or psychology into everyday life. The little that has been done has been looking at the mind through a lens of illness and pathology, rather than one of fitness and thriving.

When asked whether you know how to look after your physical fitness, the majority of people would say yes, and many would mention their specific fitness routine. Whether you jog, swim, play a team sport or just bounce on a trampoline for fun and fitness, there is an acceptance of its importance and knowledge of the practical skills to apply fitness strategies in your own life.

“Coaching is all about psychology. You’ve got to have an understanding of your staff and your players.” – Paul Roos

Some sectors of the population seem to have a better grasp of the relevance of mind to body and vice-versa – and sport is one of them. I say better, but still there are significant gaps. Take a look at our AFL teams – the ratio of people caring for players’ physical versus mental fitness is significantly skewed. Maybe two thirds of the 18 AFL clubs have a dedicated psychologist, all of whom are part time, and expected to cover a diverse portfolio from recruitment to on-field performance, to organisational culture to player wellbeing.

In these days of professional sport you would not expect a physical conditioning coach to also play the role of physio, masseuse or doctor. Mental fitness and wellbeing is often referred to as an important part of the game – you hear players and coaches saying things like “we weren’t mentally prepared” or “my head wasn’t in the game”, but we are yet to see a real commitment in terms of dedicated resources and time in the club schedules to develop players’ resilience, wellbeing and mental health. When psychological skills sessions are scheduled, they are often in the players’ own time or the last priority, so the first thing to get squeezed out of the training program.

One coach who has emphasised the mental aspect of AFL better than most is Paul Roos. In a recent interview Roos reflected that “Coaching is all about psychology. You’ve got to have an understanding of your staff and your players.”  After a great playing career at Fitzroy and Sydney Swans, Roos went on to coach the Swans to their first premiership in over 70 years in 2005, and is now in the challenging role of turning around the playing future of the Melbourne Demons. In the same interview Roos reflected that his first task when he started with Melbourne was to work with the playing group to change mindsets and build confidence, to “Just embrace them and treat them all as human beings…as equals.”We know that AFL players are no different to their non-AFL peers in terms of susceptibility to mental illness (one in four will struggle in their lifetime) and that the most vulnerable period for the onset of mental illness is 15-25 years old. There have been multiple high profile examples of players who have experienced mental illness such as Mitch ClarkWayne SchwassNathan ThompsonSimon Hogan and Heath Black. We also know that we can help prevent player mental illness and enhance wellbeing by teaching them the basics of how their mind, body and emotions work. The added benefit is that knowing these mind basics is also good for on-field performance, as well as performance in other aspects of life such as study, relationships and social life.

To redress the imbalance in psychological and wellbeing services, the AFL Players’ Association provides a series of wellbeing workshops to help players’ manage stress, build resilience and enhance life performance. The workshops have been developed based on the latest evidence-based science and in consultation with industry experts and players. Topics include understanding stress, managing thoughts and emotions, mindfulness, personal strengths and wellbeing.

The emphasis is on creating an engaging and practical experience for players that plants seeds of how psychology can help them understand themselves and how to maximise their potential in all aspects of life. These workshops are intended to support and educate players and encourage clubs to develop a culture that emphasises mental and physical health and fitness in equal measure. Understanding both body and mind is the secret to success, which has not escaped Brent Harvey’s attention when he was recently asked about retirement “I’ve always said I’d play on as long as my body and mind is sound…”.

The AFL Players’ Wellbeing Workshops are supplemented by a National Psychology network of 18 registered psychologists who can be accessed free of charge and provide current and past players’ with independent and confidential support, away from the club environment, for mental fitness, wellbeing, stress and illness related issues.

Contact Dr Jo Mitchell or Jen Ashton at for further information.

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