The AIS has partnered with the Black Dog Institute to deliver the Mental Fitness Program to year 7-10 students across Australia.
This program provides current and former elite athletes opportunities to engage with school-based communities to promote positive psychology strategies and improve wellbeing outcomes for young people.
Presentations can be delivered face-to-face or via webinar. Mental Fitness is an interactive 30-minute presentation that helps young people to: learn the importance of mental fitness; be shown practical ways to build their mental strength, flexibility and endurance; and take part in activities that can help improve overall wellbeing and resilience. This presentation also encourages young people to participate in the Mental Fitness Challenge on the Bite Back website.
The Bite Back Mental Fitness Challenge aims to help young people improve their mental fitness, increase their happiness, reduce stress, improve friendships and focus. The challenges are made up of 6 weekly individual challenges that give participants the opportunity to test out positive psychology techniques.
Request a free presentation delivered by an elite athlete.
Mental Fitness Program Presenters
When I first got into elite sport, I was thrown in the deep end. Within about eight months of taking up para-rowing, I had some incredibly amazing experiences, but they didn’t come without their challenges.
The mental element is greater than the physical challenge. The need to acknowledge bad experiences and keep your mind from wandering is something that no-one could prepare me for.
I’d been selected in the Australian team for the 2015 Rowing World Championships and sized up for the uniform for the 2016 Paralympics, when someone within the rowing community protested my eligibility - I was withdrawn from the team one month before flying out to France and fulfilling my dream of representing Australia.
Having trained twice a day and committed in my mind to this new goal, all of a sudden I had the rug ripped out from underneath me. I was fit. I was ready. But I’d still failed.
Shortly after, I was contacted by Athletics Australia and asked if I was interested in trying for selection for the Rio Paralympics, again - this time throwing a javelin.
When a severe injury during training threw a spanner in the works, I fell agonisingly short of qualifying for the Paralympics. For a third time, I’d fallen short of my goal of representing Australia, but got back into training and the fourth time in 2017 I finally earned my chance - and became a world champion with a world record that still stands.
For me it was about persistence and understanding that life is continuously throwing you challenges - they’re just something you’ve got to deal with.
Arguably, the best thing that ever happened to me was repeated failure; welcoming failure as a learning experience is a chance to prove that you can overcome whatever you put your mind to.
As I look back on my academic results, I wasn’t the highest achieving student; my motivation and enjoyment came through participating in sport. The sporting field gave me an opportunity to take on new challenges, participate with friends and appreciate the importance of teamwork.
There have been several hurdles along the way. During Year 12 I had a shoulder reconstruction, which kept me off the field for a number of months. During this time, I had let myself go fitness wise, my eating habits had altered, and I certainly wasn’t giving myself a chance to take the next step and be selected into elite programs or Australian junior squads.
I had always doubted my abilities. Early on, teammates I thought had the same ability as me were being selected for state teams, while I wasn’t. As the years progressed, opportunities slowly appeared, yet even in the U18 Nationals I was selected in the “B team” again - believing I wasn’t quite good enough.
I realised that I had some skills, but there needed to be a change to the way I approached hockey so I could improve as an athlete. I continued with my studies and completed a Bachelor’s degree. Even though I struggled at times, I persisted, as I know the importance of education.
It was the self-driven determination to improve that helped inspire me. Persistence was the key, there were changes to training programs, various options were explored, and I tried new activities including gym programs. My diet altered, food intake was very important. Seeking advice from several experienced athletes who had performed at an elite level assisted with my preparation.
My message is that of resilience. Have confidence in your ability. Persist. Keep putting in the hard work. Goals are achievable.
I grew up as a gymnast. It was a performance-based community and I put a lot of pressure on myself.
At school, my whole identity was immersed in how good I was as a gymnast. I felt like if I did well then people liked me, and if I didn’t then I wasn’t as important.
I was wrestling with who I was as a person. I knew gymnastics wasn’t my best sport, but I was too afraid to change because my whole identity was immersed in being a gymnast. What if I failed?
Even at the age of 16, I knew I could be a better diver than a gymnast, but I couldn’t get myself to make a change, which was just crazy. And then at the ripe old age of 22 I made that decision.
My message is that even if things aren’t going well in your work or life, it doesn’t define you; there’s always hope, and everyone is important and valuable.
What helped me was finding a connection with Christianity and my relationship with God. If I had my time again, I would have made my decision at 16, but that’s hindsight for you!
You don’t have to be talented or gifted at something to be important. Everyone has a purpose in life, and I‘d love to use my voice and my platform as an athlete to encourage each individual to find their own identity.
In my early years as a professional rugby player, I didn’t know how to balance life and my sport. That affected my mental health, and I had to use many techniques and a lot of willpower to pull me out of a dark place.
I’d got to a point where rugby was my happiness. Or not. So if we lost a game that’s when I was sad, which wasn’t healthy. Now I’ve got a lot of things other than rugby that make me happy, and if I lose a game now it doesn’t really matter.
It’s OK not to be OK, but there are ways to get out of that situation and strategies that can help. I’m really big on having a balance; not focusing solely on one thing, but diving into many and experiencing life as a whole.
I’ve just became an ambassador for Ronald McDonald House, where I’m also a volunteer for two half-days a week. I’ll normally mop and vacuum the floors, do the dishes, clean the tables and then talk with the families.
It gives me a lot of perspective. The kids and their families are amazing; they’re going through a lot more than anyone else and they’re the happiest people I’ve met. They have such a positive outlook.
I meditate every day, and write in my ‘gratitude book’ as part of the The Resilience Project, an online program based on finding happiness through gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. It’s really helped me.
The teenage years can be very challenging. I was 18 when I went through my struggles, so I can relate to feeling stressed. So focus on other things, and not purely an exam result. Have other things going on in your life.
As a child, I quickly realised I was different. Growing up with a disability, cerebral palsy, it used to frustrate me that I couldn’t always keep up with my mates when we were playing sport.
I’d try and fit in, but there were times, especially in high school, when I felt a little bullied. But I took it in my stride and it’s made me stronger.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that everybody needs to accept their own individuality. It’s OK to be different and we all have abilities that make us unique.
Discovering sport for disabilities was a huge positive for me. I took up athletics and swimming and I was competitive. I remember watching the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, being inspired, and thinking that could be me one day. I’m hoping to make my Paralympic debut in Tokyo next year, but there will be a smaller, strong, cycling team selected, and I don’t want to get too confident and jinx myself!
As I am only 22, and have been in the school system not too long ago, I think my recent experiences in education and sport can help students through the Mental Fitness Program.
Even though there were a few times when high school wasn't always the easiest, there were many positive outcomes, too. I learnt the importance of time management to balance my school/training load and also how to manage assessment stress, too.
They’re skills I still use now at university, where I've made new friendships and strengthened enduring bonds that continue to help me get through the good and the bad times. Life will reliably deliver both.
I was a bit of a lost kid when the Reach Foundation came to my school. I was 15 or 16. Without that workshop, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
I have two older brothers, and I was always the wimp of the family. I just had to recognise that and be OK with it.
My dad’s a great man but he’s pretty old-fashioned and it was hard early on - there wasn’t much acceptance, and I just wasn’t a stereotypical ‘man’. I preferred to be inside helping my mum do the cleaning than outside wrestling with my brothers.
So it’s crazy isn’t it, that I’m now a I’m a boxer? I know! Ballet is part of my training. I do something once a month that makes me uncomfortable: karaoke; no technology for a month; I’ll do stand-up comedy when I can.
I put a full face of make-up on for a whole day, and all my friends and family were going crazy, but you’ve just got to be different. You’ve got to push the boundaries and see how much you can get away with.
The hardest thing has probably been having a couple of really tough conversations. It’s uncomfortable for that brief moment, but having that conversation with a loved one or someone you really need to be vulnerable with is also so powerful.
I know growing up that I wasn’t the stereotypical Melbourne kid in the outer-eastern suburbs. I’ve always been a little bit different, so it’s something I encourage. Be unique and be yourself. Know that there’s still pathways out there for you.
If we, as athletes, can do some work to inspire some youngsters through the Mental Health Program, just like the Reach Foundation did for me, then that’s what I’m all about.
I have a great passion for learning - whether that’s teaching kids at secondary school as part of my day job, mentoring younger athletes or studying something knew.
Alongside this passion, my kayaking career has been on a roller-coaster ride. Steep trajectories of going from mining engineer to elite athlete; periods of highs in qualifying for my first Olympic team; and periods of lows when I was dropped from Australian teams. I have learnt from all these experiences and have built myself to be a stronger and more resilient person.
Currently we are in a fluid society where changes are happening rapidly - all out of our own control. It’s in these periods that I have relied upon the skills I’ve developed as an athlete and tried to just ‘control the controllables'. By focusing on what I currently can control and having a clear plan, my training and my life has more purpose.
In times like this it is important to communicate with our friends and family and ask for help when we need it. The Black Dog Institute provides some great resources in relation to mental health. This is an area I am personally working on throughout this time in lockdown; making myself more mentally resilient.
I’ve done a bit of work with development athletes over my time. I really enjoy guiding them through their sporting journey and helping them deal with the stress associated with balancing life, school, work, study or whatever it is. I know that it’s quite dynamic.
I’m happy to help in any way I can, no matter how big or small.
I started kayaking when I was in year eight, and it was a big commitment. The program was designed to make you an elite athlete and get you into Australian teams, so from when I was 15 I was probably doing 10 training sessions a week.
During that hard period in the late teenage years when everyone starts to get into partying and alcohol and those things, you have to remember what your goals and priorities are.
I saw lots of people in my sport drop out because they just wanted to be ‘normal’ like their friends, but I had to be really clear in my own goals and keep my positive mindset and attitude towards my training; choose a different way to go about my life every day.
I’d go to parties but I wasn’t drinking alcohol and I’d leave early. It’s always challenging to make those decisions when your friends want you to stay all night.
But I just had to remind myself that I had training in the morning, and it was because I wanted to represent Australia. I had to remind myself of the choices I’d made and that they’d pay off one day.
It’s important to always have goals and interests outside of sport, too - having that balance in your life so you’re not always concerned about one thing. For me it was sport and study and now has become my work as a paramedic.
A lot of teenagers can get caught up in just their school results and exams, but having activities outside school helps your wellbeing and your development as a person. If you can set kids up with the right mindset at a young age I think it will assist them to navigate that critical period in their life.
I was born with a congenital disorder. On my right hand I have three fingers, on my left side I have two fingers and no elbow, and my right leg is where I’ve had most of my issues. At one stage it was seven centimetres shorter than my left.
I was in and out of hospital through primary and secondary school and I had my first major leg-lengthening surgery at 11. The kid in the bed next to me had a very severe case of spina bifida, and I was told then that he wouldn’t live past 15 or 16 years of age.
So here I am thinking ‘woe is me, my life’s ending because I can’t run out and play football like I want to’, when this kid was probably not going to get past his 16th birthday. That was a light-bulb moment when I was pretty young, and I’ve tried to remain positive for the rest of my life because of that.
The Mental Fitness Program's positive psychology model and some of its values really resonate with me; I feel like I live them anyway. One of my key messages is that no matter how bad you think life’s going, there’s always someone worse off than you. So if you take the attitude of ‘right, what can I do in my own little space?’, you can go out and accomplish anything you want.
I love the fact that I can compete in both para and Open bowls, because I feel like I’ve broken down some barriers in terms of inclusiveness, as well.
I’ve seen a lot of people who are struggling during this tough time. I want to help out through social media - I have around 50,000 Instagram followers and it’s growing a lot - and try to shine a light on those having a hard time.
I’m from Wollongong, and lots of kids around where I live have lost their jobs. Lots of kids everywhere have lost their jobs. They’ve got no income, they can’t get around because they can’t pay for petrol, so they’re stuck inside and they’re going to some dark places.
For me, even just skating on the road out the front of my house, or in the driveway, will really lift my spirits and my day. I’ll be very bored, not doing anything, and going out for a little skate can get my head into the right spot. From there on I’m good. I can focus on my schoolwork, feel more positive. Keeping active and healthy really helps everything.
I don’t do meditation or yoga or anything like that but I stretch a lot and work on slowing down my breathing before I go to bed. It means I can just get everything out of my head. It really works for me.
Surround yourself with people that you like being around. If you’re hanging out with people who are not bringing positive vibes or are always bringing you down, that’s definitely not going to help.
I’m 16, a similar age to many of the kids who will be part of the Mental Fitness Program. We’re in tough times right now, but just stay strong, and everything will come back to normal eventually.
Cancer in my right foot left me an amputee at the age of seven. It changed the trajectory of my life more than I could have imagined.
I bounced back surprisingly well - being young and naive has its perks - but by the time I hit high school, mixing the grief of my amputation and my identity crisis with the turbulent teenage years, I really struggled with life.
I was a trouble-maker and liked doing the wrong thing. I found myself using alcohol and drugs as an escape. They did a great job for a while, but eventually they stopped working and actually began to ruin my life.
At age 21, I broke the cycle. I moved to Sydney, traded all my bad habits for new ones. I started to work on myself from the inside out, and accepted my reality: that I was an amputee. It took 15 years, but choosing to stop feeling sorry for myself and make the most of my circumstances changed everything.
I learnt to swim at 22, and at that point I knew what I wanted: to be a Paralympian. To prove to myself, my family, friends, strangers, that anything is achievable with a hard work and dedication.
I’m still doing everything I can to qualify for Tokyo but coming into para-triathlon half-way through the four-year cycle meant it was always going to be a long shot. Paris 2024 is still my main goal.
I’m already an ambassador for the Black Dog Institute, and the experiences I can share are not typical of most athletes. A really important message for kids, especially, is to try new things. It doesn’t matter if you’re bad when you start. Have a go. You can get better.
Growing up in rural Queensland, I called it ‘small-town syndrome’. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer from the condition that made it hard for young people to aspire to get further in life.
Their family or friends were usually very country-town-orientated - which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes it’s a bit looked-down-upon to want to be successful. Being vocal about that - not in an arrogant way - can be taken very badly.
I was lucky that my community was very supportive, but I definitely had naysayers along the way and just people with chips on their shoulders.
A lot of my mates who fell into that could have been very successful in sport or other things in life - which they didn’t pursue because it wasn’t ‘the cool thing’ or they had to stay on the farm or they just didn’t want to bite the bullet. Mental health issues, like depression, can be a part of that, too.
Country people usually have such a strong work ethic, but sometimes it can be hard for them to adjust to the city mentality, or just get past the roadblocks of being so far out of metro areas where they can access the facilities they need.
On the farm, we had to make do with what we had, and dad built a throwing circle and stuff at home so I could train well. We did what we could with what we had.
I’ve seen a lot of kids bullied or teased at school just for wanting to be successful, or departing from the status quo. I hope I can help them develop coping mechanisms and resilience, and deal with the issues that come along so that they don’t become crushing.
It was a strange situation when I was first approached to compete in Para sport. The fact that I’d never looked at myself as having a disability was the biggest thing I had to get my head around.
I was 19 when I was given the opportunity to compete in a Para event overseas, in Jordan in the Middle East. So it was an eye-opener, in several ways. It was a whole new world.
Some athletes had a leg and both arms missing and and they were still able to play table tennis. For me that was just insane. I got to see what real, raw, pure sport was, and I was hooked. I was in.
Everyone has obstacles and setbacks that pop up, and I’ve been lucky enough to be taught that what really matters is the way you choose to view them: you can decide the outcome, you can choose what you make of something, you can help to determine whether it’s a positive result.
I’ve always been very fortunate with the people that I have - and have had - around me. They’re very positive and encouraging. Always pushing me to be better, to find ways to improve. I’ve done a lot of work over the past few years with my sports psych, and I’ve tried things that help me day to day.
I enjoy interacting with school kids, in particular, so it’s exciting for me to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about myself while getting the chance to pass on my own knowledge young people still finding their way.
There’s no chance I could ever imagined what I would achieve: being the first Australian athlete to compete at both an Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s so important not to limit yourself.
I have lived with diagnosed anxiety since 2013, but have probably been managing certain symptoms since I was 16 or 17. I was just lucky that my involvement in sport gave me a really easy way to engage with psychology support services through the AIS when I needed them, at a time when mental health awareness and education was much more limited.
Back then, it was just going for a casual coffee or a walk with the team psych on training camp, and I probably didn't realise some of the skills and strategies I was learning along the way. But it's certainly solidified the importance of learning to be more present and better understand my feelings and responses, as well as those of the people around me.
These experiences have been a huge motivator for me to get involved with the Mental Fitness Program.
The other comes through my personal links to suicide, having lost a very close friend in 2017, and my desire to raise awareness and understanding around mental ill-health among today's youth and ultimately try to make a contribution to suicide prevention. I'm very grateful for the opportunity the AIS has given us to get in front of schools and be actively involved in sharing our stories and helping to educate students.
That gratitude piece is something I'm working hard on at the moment. It's great that people are acknowledging their own challenges during isolation, and the fact that community mental health is at the forefront of people’s minds for what will continue to be a long and arduous journey for many, long after we've returned to our 'new normal’.
At times like these I'm trying hard to focus on being grateful for what I do have, rather than lamenting what I don’t.
I wish I’d learnt more about the importance of positive psychology when I was growing up, so that I could start to implement strategies a little bit earlier. Education about mental health wasn’t something I was exposed to at school or through my earlier hockey years.
The biggest thing for me at school was that some of my best friends weren’t as serious about sport as I was. It was scary when people would say ‘not all your friends now will be your friends forever’, and it was scary to move away from the relationships I had at the time - even though we weren’t into the same things.
I struggled with the balance because I had my sporting commitments, but I was seeing people without those commitments socialising, and I was stuck in two minds about what I wanted to do.
But I had to trust that it was OK to be different, and the people that have come into my life since leaving school have had such a beneficial and positive impact on my sport and my life.
Recently I’ve started to try and implement mindfulness and gratitude into my day. Every day. I'm also trying to focus on my strengths and gain confidence in my own sport, hockey, because I think that’s something I've lacked.
Through my VIS scholarship, I’ve worked with a psychologist and been lucky to be exposed to guest speakers and talk with other athletes, which I’m very grateful for. I’m only 23, so I hope I’m someone the school kids in the Bite Back program can relate to, and learn from, too.
I’d tell my younger self that the biggest thing is to back yourself and follow your dreams. If you want to make it in sport, then everything else will fall into place.
It was just one little conversation. But it had a huge impact on my mental health.
After I dislocated my knee in 2016 and my rugby dream was taken away from me, I also didn’t know how to cope with the fact my leg was left very obviously disfigured.
One day I spoke to a fellow rower, Jed Altschwager, about how he came to terms with losing his leg and how he has recognised his prosthesis as his own limb. He said you can’t change your leg; it’s all about perceptions.
That really resonated with me. It empowered me to embrace my leg and be proud of it, which had been a big part of my struggle with mental health.
Before my injury, my friends were mostly from rugby, and unfortunately not a lot of them were there for me afterwards, which was a very painful realisation. That all contributes, too.
I was 25 and thought I was going to lose my leg. I thought my world was ending because my world was rugby and trying to make the Australian team.
But now I can honestly say that almost losing my leg is one of the best things to happen to me, because I’m a much stronger person - mentally, physically, emotionally- and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that.
I want to give back to the community by sharing my story, in the hope that even one thing I say can resonate with someone and help make a difference like Jed did for me.
Kids in particular are so vulnerable - especially today with all the technology and social media bullying - that if I can draw on my experience and help influence even just one kid to have more positive mental health, then that would be absolutely amazing
Facebook was the only main form of social media when I was at school, but it wasn’t pervasive and not everyone was using it. These days it’s inevitable, and even not being on it can lead to complications. It makes promoting positive psychology so much harder.
I’ve studied a lot of social media in my business degree and my undergraduate media degree. I’ve seen the impact it can have and how, maybe even subconsciously, it can affect a student’s trajectory or their self-belief. We’re all so exposed to what everyone is doing and the best version of themselves that they’re putting out there that natural comparisons can become a vicious cycle.
It’s hard not to compare yourself when you see people living the life or doing things at your age that you’re not doing. So I think it’s so important to have mechanisms to escape from that bubble.
During coronavirus isolation, I’ve reduced my social media intake, because it’s just not worth seeing, for example, how some people in other countries can still paddle, when I can’t, or still be with their friends. It can be really hard to deal with seeing what other people have that you don’t.
Finding ways to be self-confident enough with your trajectory, what you’re doing and who you are can help you avoid questioning yourself and going down a harmful social media path. Sport brought to me in school; so many opportunities and so much perspective. There’s more to school than just your academic results, and so much to seize at that age in terms of developing positive habits, goal-setting, and well-being outcomes.
I was a gymnast. I’m an Olympian. But it wasn’t until I went to college in the US and then joined the TV show Australian Ninja Warrior that I really changed my mindset.
A lot of what I’ve learnt has been through making my own mistakes, and a program like the Mental Fitness Program creates the opportunities to share experiences, help others grow and gain awareness before they make mistakes themselves. (Although I also know that some will only learn from first-hand experience).
A big mistake for me was around goal-setting, which I first thought was a little bit silly. My ambition was to be an Olympian, which is something that very few achieve. But my time at at college showed me that Americans don’t just aim to go to the Olympics, they aim to win at the Olympics. Now I’m not shy to set my goals higher.
As I’ve taken my career into Australian Ninja Warrior, my goal is to win the show. I‘m competing against males, so it’s no easy task, but I’ve learnt that aiming high starts to shift and shape the way you train, the way you think, the way you act.
I never used to do it, but setting up a vision board and setting up process goals keeps you accountable, motivated. When I hadn’t trained and I couldn’t climb the wall in season one it re-lit the fire inside and I started caring about health and fitness again. Since then I’ve been the only female to make it to the grand final. Twice.
I know from personal experience it can be a little scary to say your goals out loud. But I also know it’s better to leave no stone unturned and chase your dreams.
I’ve almost finished my Masters in Psychology. What appealed to me about a program teaching positive psychology to high school kids was contributing everything I know, learning a little more and putting that back into helping the younger generation.
I’ve become even more interested in health and wellbeing since I went to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I suffered a stress reaction in my left femur four weeks out. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through.
I was training in Switzerland at the time. I had my brother Jared there with me but I was away from my normal environment, and mum and dad, when I was told I might not be able to compete.
I had to stay at the European Training Centre in Italy on my own for the next two weeks, as the doctors and the physio just tried to get me to the competition. It was not how I wanted to prepare for the most important race of my career and life, because no-one knows if they will ever get to the Olympics again.
I was lucky with the people I had around me. Even before I went away, my psychologist had already started me on mindfulness, and it’s something I’ve done ever since. Flow is a big part, too; just reminding yourself of the good moments and why you do it. It’s kind of what keeps me going in my training now.
You’ve got to have resilience. You can have those really big setbacks, but it’s learning to overcome them and come back from them, as well. It’s so important to have the skills to help you get though the hard times.
For further information about this program or opportunities to be involved please contact email@example.com