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 was in senior school, two Olympians came and shared their stories. I remember that being the turning point for me. Not so much in terms of sport, but just in my outlook - taking the glass-half-full approach to life.
Growing up, I was never the best at sport, so those girls coming and talking to us showed me that anyone can do it. Seeing somebody that grew up exactly the same way I did made me realise that ‘if they can do it, why can’t I?'
Kayaking is a challenging sport to get into, and when I first took it up to improve my surf ski paddling, I fell out every second stroke. From that comes a bit of resilience, I guess, because my first goal was literally just to stay upright.
And that’s really relevant in life: ticking off those little goals before you get to the big ones.
Surrounding myself with people who get the best out of me has also been massively important in my career. It’s almost like a love story (which my husband’s probably not happy about!), but when I met my K2 partner Alyssa Bull she showed me how to really find enjoyment in something.
Before that, I used to go through the motions and just tick the box, whereas now I’ve found enjoyment in every aspect of my training, which helps me get the most out of every session. This mentality relates to more than just sport.
If you’re happy in your life in general you’ll want to rock up every day and get better and better at what you do. Which is much more fulfilling than spending your life wondering if you can.
I’m very grateful every day to still be around. A couple of weeks after I suffered spinal cord damage in a surfing accident when I was just 13, I was very close to passing away. Now I’m lucky to have a house, a car, a job, and a family, too.
When you’re feeling young and invincible, having such a big change in your life is very difficult, but some part of you has to keep hold of your dream, regardless of the situation.
For me, I knew it was very serious, and it was going to take a long time, but once I learnt about wheelchair sport and wheelchair rugby I always had the ambition that I would still be able to potentially play for Australia, or go to a Paralympics. It’s about working on small goals to eventually get you to where you want to be.
Those first couple of months I definitely thought I would not be able to do anything, but as soon as I realised what I was still capable of and what life would be like for me it definitely changed my mindset and I knew deep down that this was something I still wanted to do. So I spent a lot of time getting myself right mentally and physically to lead the most fulfilling life that I could have.
Given the career that I have, playing sport, a healthy, active lifestyle is part of every day. Eating well, trying to do the right thing, staying positive and surrounding yourself with good people always helps with motivation.
Obviously everyone’s circumstances are different, but the fact that someone like myself can still go out and stay fit and healthy is probably a good example that anyone can do it.
I’d been training for over three years to become an Olympian and represent Australia at the highest level. To not qualify for the Tokyo Games’ selection trials in February and have that possibility taken away definitely made me pause.
It was like ‘what was I doing this all for? What was the point?’
But then I realised that missing out on an accolade doesn’t detract from the work and effort I put in and everything I’ve achieved along the way. Like the competitions I went to and the placings I got, or didn’t get. The memories, the friends I made and the experiences I had. They all came together into something I want to share with other people.
I already had a passion to improve the understanding of how people cope with different mental illnesses. It’s so important to talk about.
I’m studying a science degree with the intention to complete a Masters in Education, and become a secondary science teacher. My teachers did a lot to help me navigate my own mental health struggles. I’d be honoured for the opportunity to do the same.
They came about through stress. I put my identity in my marks and, through them, I measured myself against other people. I still do, in some ways. I’m still a comparative person; it doesn’t all go away that quickly.
I just wanted to make my parents and people around me proud - without acknowledging that there’s unconditional pride and love already there.
I have definitely come to a better place knowing that my identity is not defined by my achievements, but my passions and faith. As a Christian, I have an unchanging identity from a great God. I first realised that five years ago. It’s the most important thing about me.
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.
I’ve always tried my hardest to avoid my impairment preventing me from doing things, especially sport. When I was 10 years old, my parents asked if I wanted to play hockey. Being a congenital arm amputee. I wasn’t sure exactly how that would work.
But my parents and community were always supportive and I ended up playing hockey for 12 years. I also loved netball; however, my experiences weren’t always positive. Throughout high school I’d make the able-bodied district team, but, year after year, I wouldn’t get selected in the regional team to go to the state titles, despite my skills and ability.
I had selectors pulling me aside after the trials and tell me how well I played and then say ‘unfortunately we’re not going to pick you today’.
I felt patronised, which is something you deal with a lot when you have a disability. I was devastated and frustrated that they were only seeing my disability. This fuelled my fire even more and the following year I made the team. It boosted my confidence to have overcome such a huge barrier that day.
I struggled to accept my impairment and be comfortable in my own skin for years, which resulted in a lot of anxiety. I would avoid situations where I might meet a new person just because I didn’t want to deal with the constant staring. I loved my comfort zone, but recognised I wasn’t going to live a fulfilling life without putting myself in challenging situations.
People aren’t always exposed to someone who has a disability or mental health issues, which is why it’s necessary we promote awareness at a young age. Try to be open-minded and non-judgemental through understanding, but also encourage tolerance and inclusiveness. By starting early, we can help to change attitudes.
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.
If I didn’t have sport, I could be on a completely different path. I have an addictive, all-or-nothing personality which ultimately could have seen me go in a direction that we all try to avoid.
I like the intensity of training and that place you go where it hurts like hell but where you are really pushing your limits. Many doors have opened for me because of my participation in sport, and it’s a huge contributing factor to the person I've become.
Mental health’s very close to my heart. Through the struggles of my family and close friends, it’s all around me. I still find it difficult, but I do like to talk about mental health, because we don’t talk about it enough.
It wasn’t until I starting opening up about my upbringing that my friends really understood me. What I’ve been though has been tough, and sharing that experience is powerful.
The sporting world, and living with my grandma from when I was about 15, have been my lifesavers. My grandma and my extended family guided me down a positive path and, eventually, to the Australian rowing team.
Being vulnerable enough to talk about what I was going through allowed me to make connections with so many different people. The support you get from friends, teammates and your community is a beautiful message to spread. Everyone needs to know that if they are going through tough times at home, work or in school that there’s ways that they can be supported.
My rowing journey may be on a fast progression, but my message and passion for mental health awareness and wellbeing has been developing for a long time and seen me endure some painful life experiences which really have made me who I am today.
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 never really felt comfortable talking about my own mental health. Until, one day, I did.
I don’t think there’s enough conversation in schools, which is a big part of why the Mental Fitness Program appealed to me. I want to encourage kids to talk about it, and know there are people who will listen and support you. It’s not a scary thing. Or a weakness. Don’t wait until things become too much.
There’s a lot of people - especially kids - who probably don’t understand what’s going on at the moment with coronavirus, so it’s really important to have somewhere to go online and engage with others, see that you’re not alone, and that there are still positive things out there.
Initially, I wasn’t a big advocate for mindfulness. Now I am. Whenever anyone suggested it, I’d be like ‘nah, that is just not for me’. I wasn’t someone who could sit still. I’m still not. I’m struggling at the moment studying for my criminology degree from home because I’m not getting that interaction with other people. I’m a busy person, who’s always on the go.
But I needed to relieve my stress and anxiety and once I embraced mindfulness I realised that what everyone was telling me was right: it’s just about perseverance. It’s a skill you develop. Keep practising.
As an elite athlete, I thought being physically fine was the most important thing, but you need to look after your mental health and wellbeing, too.
Now that we’re in this isolation period, I’ve realised that because I had these tools in place and I worked on them while I was doing sport, I actually haven’t found it much of an added stress. But what works for me might not work for everyone, so it’s just exploring ways to figure it out.
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.
My first struggle with mental health came when I finished high school. It’s such an important time, because life when you graduate is is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. For 12 or 13 years, school is all you’ve ever known.
I suffered mainly from anxiety, which brought on depression. The AIS volleyball program here in Canberra didn’t exist when I graduated high school so you had to go over to America to go to college, which is what I had signed on to do.
Without having to study for eight months, I thought it should have been the best time in my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.
I was lost without anything to do. Without any real structure.
I struggled again after I graduated from university and went into the professional volleyball world: just comparing this idea of how I thought things would be when in reality they were quite different.
My faith is a big part of how I’ve managed. and understanding myself more deeply. No matter what changes in your life circumstances, there’s still stability in who you are when you are able to be vulnerable. Get to know yourself better, take time and be gracious and kind to yourself.
Volleyball is such a team - and a community - sport. In my position, everyone has to do their job before I do mine and so the friendships and opportunities to learn have helped me through my struggles.
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 was the first female professional boxer in NSW. Just 10 years ago there was no women’s boxing in the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics. When I tell people that I couldn’t box when I first wanted to they’re like ‘‘no way!’’.
My message to young people: branch out and latch onto whatever you feel connected to and want to do. If you believe it, you can make it happen. The possibilities are infinite. Your imagination needs to be endless.
A big thing is surrounding yourself with positive and uplifting people, not those who bring you down. And something I’ve learnt more recently is a different way of critiquing myself.
I know that if I’ve had a bad training session or something I start to go ‘oh, you’re an idiot, you’ve been boxing for 10 years, you can’t even throw a jab’.
So I try to imagine how my mum would talk to me or how my good friend Anya who trains with me would say it. She’d be ‘yeah, today you weren’t on, but you do have a really strong jab when you do step your foot in’. It’s so important to talk to yourself this way.
Mental illness is in my family. My mum’s sister committed suicide, my mum has suffered from depression throughout her life, two of my sisters have been diagnosed on and off and are managing it, and I’ve had a bout of it myself - more linked with sport.
The current COVID-19 situation can magnify things, because you don’t have same connection, or contact with the people who can lift you up or put things in perspective. Sometimes just a couple of different words or a tone can really make a difference and stop you from doing something really destructive. I’d love to help.
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.
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