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The highs and lows of sports psychology

Photo: Western Bulldogs AFLW
The intensity and scale of the public reaction to Australian Cricket’s cheating scandal, and the subsequent emotional impact on the players, their families and the broader community has - if nothing else - shone a light on the unique mental health challenges faced by elite athletes and those around them.

"I think it is important to understand that the list of people impacted by a scandal doesn’t stop at those who were involved," says sports psychologist Kessia Ianzano.

"There are significant impacts for family members, staff and team mates, as well as the broader Australian community in the case of the Australian Cricket.

"Everyone handles adversity differently, and the potential impact experienced will differ from person to person, however the same principles apply - with professional support, as well as support from family and friends all who are involved will overcome their adversity."
Of course public controversies are only one element of sporting life that can have a direct impact the mental health of athletes and professional sportspeople.

"Everything in an elite sporting environment is amplified,” says Ianzano, who works for AFL Victoria and is the team psychologist for the Western Bulldogs AFLW team.

“The pressures and expectations experienced by athletes and sporting teams to perform day in and day out is exaggerated.”

Ianzano says the main cause of mental health stress she has seen in athletes is the loss of self-identity.

“It is easy for athletes to be consumed in an amplified environment and forget who they really are and why they have chosen to pursue their sporting career.

"Other stresses include; pressure to perform and maintain a position within a team, injuries, life balance, sustaining friendships and relationships, physical stress on the body, social media, being role models."

While some athletes cope well, others need additional support, which is why sporting teams require dedicated psychologists, specifically trained in dealing with the unique challenges they face. 

"Having worked with the women of the Western Bulldogs I saw first hand how difficult it is to balance working full time, training three nights a week, travelling and playing on the weekend, sustaining friendships and relationships, and making sure their bodies are in prime condition week in and out.

"Then add to this the media appearances, the pressures of social media, the pressures of retaining a position on an AFLW list, the list of stressors is endless."

The primary role of a sport psychologist is much like any other psychologist, says Ianzano, but perhaps the most obvious difference, is the environment in which they work.

"Often my sessions with athletes would be done whilst walking laps of an oval or kicking a footy.

"The conditions in which I practice are very unconditional, but the capacity to build rapport is heightened because the pressures and stigma of being in a counselling room are removed.

“The majority of my conversations with athletes happen off the track while athletes are in ice baths, driving to and from training, or sending text messages in between shifts at work.

"Being a sport psychologist is unconventional, but I wouldn’t have it any other way."

Which is why dedicated training is required in order to successfully perform within unique conditions, to address the specific challenges experienced by athletes and those around them.

"Completing a Master of Applied Psychology (Sport Psychology) I was able to obtain the skills and knowledge of a psychologist with the added bonus of a specific skill set to work within the sports industry,” says Ianzano.

"As a sport psychologist there often isn’t the comfortable counselling room and the 50-minute session, it is on the track, two mins before a game and making sure that athlete can manage in the right now."

For Ianzano, the journey to sports psychology began mid-way through her general degree, when she realised she could combined both of her passions, and be a part of the process which saw elite athletes overcome adversity.

"I view athletes as people first and athletes second. All people can experience mental health issues, so it is inevitable that athletes will too.

"Some common mental health barriers faced by athletes include; general anxiety, performance anxiety, depression, overeating or undereating, risk taking behaviours, negative thinking, inappropriate coping behaviours."

Ianzano’s first role as a sport psychologist was at Melbourne University Women’s Football Club, which became a springboard to her current position with AFL Victoria.  She also works with junior athletes in private practice at Hopscotch and Harmony.

"I have loved working with the AFLW Western Bulldogs.

"It is like going to work with 30 of your friends and getting to a kick a footy, run laps and have a laugh all whilst calling it ‘my job’.

"The team of coaches, support staff and players were all welcoming of having a psychologist onboard and I was utilised in a way that worked for everyone.”

But being a sports psychologist does have its challenges, says Ianzano, the number one issue being a lack of monetary reward for significant hours of intense work.

But, she says, she wouldn't' have it any other way.

"I get to combine my love of sport and passion for helping others and call it my job, it can’t get too much better!"

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.