This series is based on The Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing. We begin with Connect, me whakawhanaunga. Here we focus specifically on helping sportspeople maintain meaningful relationships.
New Zealand-born rugby league player Jesse Sene-Lefao is part of a group called the ‘Iron Squad’. ‘Iron Squad’ is made up of Castleford and Wakefield players, as well as the Castleford CEO. These sportspeople maintain meaningful relationships by meeting weekly to connect on deeper issues of life. ‘Iron Squad’ is based on the proverb: ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’.
Sene-Lefao describes professional league as a roller-coaster. ‘”Iron Squad” keeps us level, whether winning or losing. So it keeps us happy both ways.’
For CEO Steve Gill, it is a chance to ‘take a bit of pressure off myself, and be with the boys on a different level.’
Rangi Chase was also a member when he was at Castleford. ‘You can share openly. Us as men, we don’t really tell each other what’s happening in our lives, so it helps me to have fellow players to talk to.’
According to Sene-Lefao, ‘there’s more to footy, than just playing footy’.
A basic human need
Connecting with others is a basic human need. Relationships are essential for good mental health. Isolation creates anger, anxiety and hopelessness, as well as permanent psychological damage. Solitary confinement is even considered ‘torture’ by the United Nations.
A study of Californians in the 1960s showed that people lacking social ties were two to three times more likely to die early. This result was independent of socioeconomic status, obesity, physical activity levels, and also smoking and drinking habits.
Why don’t sportspeople maintain meaningful relationships well?
It’s fair to ask what this has to do with athletes. We can think of athletes as having plenty of people in their lives. They are likely to be part of a team or a club. At an elite level there can be a plethora of coaches, physical and mental training experts, welfare officers and other support people. Then there are fans who turn out to support in their thousands.
But do they really connect with these people? Can sportspeople maintain meaningful relationships in this crowd?
Here’s some other things top sportspeople deal with, which can make relationships tricky:
- Making unpopular decisions. Sometimes they have to make decisions, on and off the field, that many people do not understand.
- Public scrutiny of every move. Athletes can struggle to have a private life, and it can be difficult to go out in public with family and friends. Especially these days, they have to assume that someone will be filming everything they do. People will be watching and people will be judging.
- Inaccurate and unfair media reports. The public has a great appetite for celebrity news, and media outlets are competing to meet it. Often the more sensational the story the better. Because of this some reporters trespass into personal lives. They misquote athletes or quote them out of context. The demand for ‘instant news’ means reports are written without full information.
- Feeling they have no one to share personal struggles with. While there may be many support staff around, players can fear that being honest might mean losing their place in the team. Outside of the team environment, it can be difficult to find people who really understand the athlete’s life.
- Criticism and rejection after poor performance. Supporters can turn very quickly into vocal critics.
- Long periods away from home. And the adjustment to returning home after being away can also be difficult.
- Missing occasions with family and friends.
Then they have to face retirement
Basketball great Lauren Jackson is one who has struggled with life after sport. She noticed an immediate change in people’s attitudes.
When I retired, it felt like I was put out to pasture. I’d been one of [her coaches’] greatest resources and all of a sudden it was over. You don’t hear from them.
Another is volleyball player Claire Hanna:
That following year was incredibly difficult… I was constantly surrounded by my best friends and teammates during volleyball. We could vent about a practice and celebrate together, before going back to our apartments, and cook together, ice our muscles and watch movies. It was like camp 24/7.
Ideas to help sportspeople maintain meaningful relationships:
- Consider starting a group like Jesse Sene-Lefao’s ‘Iron Squad’. Create a safe place for those in your sport to connect at a deeper level.
- Prioritise your significant relationships by making room for them in your schedule. It’s hard but we can always find time for the things that are important to us. Reassess your schedule and the things you are prioritising.
- Spend time with teammates outside of the team environment. Hang out with them for fun, or to help them out. Get to know their family. Sometimes just being in a different environment together can change your relationship.
- When travelling, take advantage of technology to connect with those at home. Schedule regular times to make contact. Just make sure these don’t clash with your team commitments of course.
- Look for appropriate opportunities to be real and go beyond the superficial with people you trust. Allow yourself to be vulnerable with them about your true thoughts and feelings.
- Practise asking good questions and listening well. Try some open-ended questions that require more than a one-word answer, e.g. ‘What do you think about…?’ You are not the only one with an interesting life, with dreams and struggles. So show a genuine interest in others.
- Look for opportunities to invite family and friends from outside sport into your sporting world. Let them see where you spend your time and who you spend it with.
- Work on your communication skills. If you struggle to connect with others in conversation, there are skills you can learn to make it easier. Just like training for your sport, with good advice and consistent practice you can see big improvements. Check out ‘People Skills’ by Casey Hawley.
- Be careful what you do and say in public, including on social media. Always assume you are being recorded. Assume that your words will last forever and that your grandmother will see them.
- Consider your life after retirement. What can you do now to ensure that you still have strong relationships?
Connect with us
- What have you found hardest about connecting with others as a sportsperson?
- What strategies have you found helpful?
Please leave your comments below, or contact us in confidence.