An Aussie and a Canuck walk into a bar...
Okay okay. There's no punch line here... unless you want to get in a fight with either of these bruisers. All jokes aside, we talked to two incredibly smart athletes about topics ranging from athlete development and post player careers. Hope you enjoy!
Jay Harrison comes to Game Change after a 15-year professional hockey career. A life long student and explorer, Jay is currently finalizing his Masters education as a Counselling Psychologist, fulfilling his desire to help others acclimate their true potential.
Dan Jackson started working with Game Change after a 11-year professional Australian Rules Football career. Dan’s passion for working within the space of youth mental health lead him to hold two non-for-profit board positions as well as several ambassador roles for organizations focused on the mental well-being of young men and women.
Why are athletes hesitant to engage in activities outside of sport?
In my opinion there are several potential barriers for athletes that prevent them from engaging and expressing broader interests. One (despite being mostly “debunked” recently) is the idea that “if I show and interest in other things, then I am losing focus on sport”. Think this is still very pervasive in the psyche of athletes. Athletes grow up in a world where “more is more”, and little emphasis is placed on any activities that do not directly correlate with perceived athletic value. The truth is, interests and development outside of sport can benefit performance, but the translation is not quite linear and thus harder to accept for many athletes. I also think that some athletes become the victims of their own self-imposed limitations. I believe that the elite athlete mindset can lend itself to the development of a myopic vision of oneself.
The more I see other professional sporting environments around the world, outside of just my experience in the AFL, the more I see the impact that club, or team, culture has on the athletes desire to engage in anything outside of their sport. Teams that genuinely either see the value in ensuring their athletes maintain balance in their lives, or understand that it can make them better athletes on the ‘field’, make it a lot easier for them to do so. Unfortunately, as Jay mentioned, many athletes see doing something away from their sport as a risk because they feel their team may see it as a lack of interest or commitment. On the other hand, we’re seeing teams that wholeheartedly support their athletes to have a balance approach to sport and life are reaping the rewards in regards to attracting the best talent, retaining it - often at a very reasonable ‘price’, AND increased success on the field, court, arena…
How can they be encouraged to overcome that hesitancy?
Although athletes are revered for their leadership abilities, it has been my observation that, in the general sense, athletes tend to “follow the crowd”. What I mean by this is that there are usually only a few athletes who will be responsible for shifting any given paradigm within a sport (such as training philosophy, for example) that leads many others to follow. Once someone else is doing it, especially if that athlete is highly respected and successful, others will follow their lead. It is our job to bring light to the great success stories athletes are pursuing on and off the field that will permit other athletes consider incorporating that mindset and behavioral focus into their lives.
I couldn’t agree more with Jay here; young athletes take the lead from the older athletes they play with. The more positive influences in an environment, the more likely it is that younger players will adopt those behaviours. Coaches know this and that’s why they hold their veterans in such high esteem - they help to set a ‘winning’ standard on the field and in the gym. The challenge is to have coaches, administrators, and players themselves, see the value in athlete development and then to celebrate the success stories. So often athletes are spoken to about the negative stories - stats of athletes who are broke within two years of retiring or those who struggle with addiction and depression - and yeh behavioural psychology tells us that you get a much better result through reinforcing positive behaviors over negative ones. Show athlete's what great things they can go on to do after they retire and you’re much more likely to motivate them to start exploring and pursuing those things.
How big of an impact did engaging beyond the game have on your performance?
I can’t say for certain the full impact, but I attribute it to extending my career and greatly improving my performance. I was an athlete who based nearly all aspects of his life on the outcomes of sport and performance, which took its toll on my mental health. Consistently stressed, anxious, neurotic about the trajectory of my career, I became incredibly susceptible to the ups and downs of professional sports. Envisioning and embracing my identity outside sport (specifically who I want to be, what I want to do when the game is no longer part of my life) did not cause me to lose my athlete identity, but rather ensured that it occupied a more healthy place in my overall identity. In finding that balance, the game became a game again. I was less hung up on the ups and downs because my perspective on how they impacted the “whole me” changed. It is no surprise that this subtle shift resulted in improved performance and a longer career.
Early in my career, when I was struggling to cement a spot in the Tigers senior team and was battling with injuries and form in general, having some part time university study to attend to was a welcome distraction. I especially enjoyed getting to the university campus and mingling with non-athletes as it gave me a sense of normality that you don’t find in the pro-sports world ‘bubble’. Did it help my on-field performance? At that early stage it would be hard to tell. I would suggest it helped me survive a tough period which may have otherwise ended in me giving up or getting ‘cut’. As I got older however, having things to do outside of the AFL was crucial. Once you’ve been in a system for eight, nine, ten years, your life gets very very repetitive and can start to grind on your motivation - at least in my experience. Having other things to do, such as being an ambassador for a charity or sitting on the Players Association board, helped keep me stimulated and motivated and in turn definitely helped my ‘footy’ on field.
As an example, the 2011 and 2012 seasons were tough for me, I was struggling with form, injury and suspensions and so I put a lot more time into my non-footballing development. In 2012 I was awarded the leagues ‘Community and Leadership Award’ for my work outside of football and then subsequently in 2013 I had my best, most consistent season yet and ended up winning our team’s MVP award. My transition from surviving to thriving came about purely because I was enjoying my life more as a whole and not just worrying about my sporting performance.
You both adopted a proactive mindset to your life beyond the game, why?
This is something that just just comes naturally to me, almost instinctual. I have always been heavily focused and prided myself on having multiple interests, relationships, and opportunities. Through my experience working with athletes, especially those in transition, I find developing a proactive mindset requires an investment in self-development and awareness building. Although we call it a “mindset” it’s really a number of behavioral competencies that can be acquired, improved, and refined through effective coaching. Developing skills and practices such as goal setting, fostering independence of action and thought, as well as shaping effective communication and networking skills can better prepare athletes for life after sport.
Now that I’m older and hopefully ‘wiser’, like Jay I think I may have always had a natural inclination to explore other things outside of sport. However, when I was competing I think a lot of my motivation to push through a university degree and to pursue other things came from the fact that a) I was never sure if I was going to get another contract so my future was always uncertain and b) I was what we affectionately call ‘a grinder’ - an athlete who has to work their ass off to get anywhere - and so I carried that attitude into non-sporting endeavours. It wasn’t always easy to get to class, or to board meetings, but then again my attitude to life in general was that nothing worthwhile comes easy so I best just suck it up and get it done… I’ve seen this time and time again, pro-athletes whose careers have been a real battle and who have had to work hard for every opportunity, seem to carry that gritty mentality into other areas of their life and as a result find ways to succeed no matter what they’re doing. Read the book ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth and you’ll see the science behind what I’ve seen life out in real life!
What do you say to those who suggest that every athlete is different and not all of them will be motivated to do anything outside of sport?
Yes all athletes are different, but we all will share one common experience: retirement. To suggest that an athlete’s lack of motivation is a reason to forego the encouragement of athletes to consider the “other than sport” part of themselves is negligent at best. If anything, the recognition of such a mindset in athletes should serve as a call to action for all involved in every aspect of that athlete’s development to find meaningful and effective ways to stimulate that motivation.
This is a hard one. Whilst I absolutely believe that every athlete needs to do something away from their sport, I disagree that they should be forced into doing anything they don’t want to do. Time and time again I’ve seen athletes pushed into courses or programs they have no interest in only to see them drop out and often resent ‘athlete development’ as a result. I think the challenge to teams, leagues and players unions, is to find ways, and to develop systems that allow athletes to explore the ‘real’ world and to pursue things they find interesting. Facilitating mentorship programs with recently retired athletes who have succeeded outside of their sport; developing short internship programs with big companies that help to provide insight to athletes about what happens at say Goggle; and ensuring athletes are given time in their schedules to be involved in ‘other’ things. Adopting an explorative style system would allow an athlete who competes for say eight years to see, taste and touch a wide range of different things they could do in their life after sport. And if nothing else, at least they’ll have worked out a bunch of things they now know they don’t want to pursue - and that’s a battle that all people face in life, not just athletes!
Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes. Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes. Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.