This week is National Psychology week and it also marks the week approaching my induction into the South Australian Sports Hall of Fame. On the surface they may not be connected but in reality it is only through development of great psychological habits that my performances on the sporting field as a player and captain developed.
Firstly there was some luck. I grew up in almost the perfect family for high performance. Both of my parents were very sporting (Dad in AFL Hall of fame) but it was their mental attitudes that stood them apart. Dad was driven like no other, with a passion to succeed and a sense of determination to find the best way. He was imaginative and never stopped looking for the edge in being the best. Mum also loved competition and shared a fierce determination but it was her eternal optimism and ability to recover from setbacks that made her exceptional. She saw that golf hole as a bucket where others thought it a very small hole. Great parents were a huge head start but then came along the three younger brothers. Twins Mark (AFL premiership coach) Anthony (SANFL footballer) and Stephen (9 times premiership coach/ player in the SANFL). Twin brothers meant 2 on 1s in the back yard with about every different type of ball imaginable and then when Steve arrived two on twos became the game. No quarter was given and being a “girl” was never in the equation when picking teams.
I grew up believing every child had the same background and it was only in my years as an elite athlete I learned that many had far different experiences.
My Uni years were also full of great fortune and development. I entered PE where not only skill development counted but also a unit called Group Dynamics. It was a wonderful subject full of theory of how groups work and practical of putting it to the test in camp activities. We tested leadership styles and were continually challenged by a great group of lecturers to try different things and meld theory into practice. It was at this time a group of young women, whom are now lifelong friends started to play a wide variety of sports together. Not only did we play but as we were our own University club we had to be President, secretary, treasurer and every other position that associations required. We fought battles of injustice ranging from scheduling bias to personal safety issues, with the bonds of friendship being forged on and off the sporting field but always keeping integrity, drive and passion for what we could achieve together.
When we started lacrosse at State and Australian level it was my first introduction to Sport psychology through the AIS program and the South Australian Sports Institute. My first profile came back as an “Iceburg” suggesting that I had mental toughness of a champion on the field. Well as far as I was concerned everyone else would have the same profile too. The SASI psychologist was a wonderful man and we had so much fun as a group with him. He had played top level sport and most of what he said to me seemed common sense. It was also a chance to question some of what was taught.” Things like never argue with an umpire.It won’t help.” Actually I could give direct examples when it did and we would laugh at the creative ways we would come up with dealing with poor treatment on a field. The only one on one I ever had with him, was to tell him that if I had to hear about or do one more goal setting sheet that I wouldn’t play. For me and many others knowing what I wanted to do and how to get there, was already in our nature, writing it out repeatedly was demotivating and a pointless waste of time. (This I learned was not so for everyone).
I also hated the permeation of sport with corporate terms. Always happy and easy to decide what we stood for, (eg great hearts, the smarts, courage and a drive to win) words such as Trademarks, KPIs etc seemed false and passionless when champions live on passion.
So through SASI I lived through 6 years of psych but it was a joy, and no one ever had to question the commitment to the team “ culture”. (Another corporate word) I really believe that the popular saying “ buying in” creates Cults. It needs a great deal of rules and blind observance of followers where those who ask questions are derided for having opinions. Our groups were extraordinarily successful and those 2 years of UniSA women that I mentioned netted 3 Australian captains, (different sports) and 6 women who played Australian or State in several different sports. None of these women would “buy in” and not allow freedom within a culture as that is what makes a group special.
Finally entering the psychology profession at the age of 54 after doing a grad dip, honours and masters gave completion to the jigsaw puzzle of elite players. I did my honours thesis on spatial awareness and gender, after sitting through lectures being told that women were the ones who couldn’t read maps or find directions. (My teammates could do both and the findings of my study were published in the British journal thanks to my lecturer who loved writing things up). My Masters thesis was done personality profiling champion coaches and X factor athletes using the Hogan profiles and it was of little surprise to me the personality factors that made champions on and off the field were consistent amongst most of them.
Most of all I would like to thank Psychology for giving me a glimpse into the world of what I didn’t know. Kahneman is one of my heroes for winning a Nobel prize on his writings of expertise and WYSIATI. What You See is All There Is was how I had lived my psychological life. I was bold, optimistic and incredibly resilient. When things went wrong (such as losing a loved brother at 29) I found a way to resolve the situation as best as I could (in that case I would honour my brother by living my life with joy and care for others. I wore Anthony’s footy badge and when I married my wonderful hubby) and the thought of not coping or any different approach was not an alternative.
The world of psychology helped me see things from others perspective much more clearly. I had always cared about others but I simply did not know the depth of despair or mental health problems that many others suffered. I love CBT and my GP husband says I sit on the behaviourist side but the truth is I love to teach the possibility of thought and action. So many athletes and children do not know there is another way and do not have anyone help them with the steps to get there. I watch coaches and teams give open and honest feedback with little care for individuals. What is particularly disturbing is that so many so called “leadership” programs have no understanding of the psychology of individuals and adopt a one size fits all program with the “Buy In” or you are not a team player philosophy. The AFL has seen first hand what happens when those not qualified are allowed to work on human bodies (even after the medical profession writes to alert them) but still there is no questioning on the disturbance of the human mind.
Great leaders and captains are loved and respected for their ability to help those they lead to be the best they can be. There is some enforcement but the general atmosphere to thrive is one where expert feedback is given in an atmosphere of care.
This is why psychology week is so important. We must be bold and promote our profession especially those in Organizational Psychology. Others with no ethical requirements or real understanding of the human condition are out there selling leadership programs and executive coaching. Let’s not only celebrate what we do but take the front foot in to explaining why years of study, reading and practical evidenced based activities are the pathway for businesses and individuals to reach their best.