Wessels investing in mental wellness and engagement

By Pete Fairbairn, 04.07.18

Melbourne Rebels Player Development Manager (PDM) Kim Gray says that having Coach David Wessels buy-in to increased mental wellness initiatives will only benefit the Club’s players, after the two attended an industry-leading Conference together last month.

Gray and Wessels were among over 200 people to attend The Three Phases of the Mental Game, a Conference facilitated by the AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA).

In attendance were PDMs, Player Welfare Managers, Psychologists and more from all over the sporting industry, including many from AFL Clubs, country sporting Clubs, and former athletes from many codes. To Gray’s knowledge, however, Wessels was the only professional coach in the room.

“For Dave (Wessels) to allocate an entire day to attend was incredible, everyone was very impressed he was there and described him as a very progressive Coach,” Gray said. “He was there and engaged from the meditation session at 8:00am and stayed right through until the end of the Conference.”

There were five key speakers at the Conference, who spoke about:

- Psychology, sport, and the power of belief (Mark B. Anderson)

- Social identity, team functioning, and wellbeing (Cliff Mallett)

- Lessons learned about selection, performance and recovery (Harry Moffitt)

- Perspective on leadership, environments and the psychology of performance (Gavin Dagley)

- A systems approach to mental health, performance and enriched environments (Lisa Stevens)

Gray said that she took some valuable key learnings out of the day, which she will be able to apply to her role as a PDM.

Click here to find out more about the RUPA Player Development Program.

“There were some key learnings, one which really resonated with me regarding an approach of ‘whatever works, works’,” Gray said. “Essentially, the suggestion was that just because something doesn’t work for every athlete, it shouldn’t be abandoned if it works for even one athlete.

“There was also some great learning around social identity at Clubs, and the importance of being careful when implementing mindfulness programs. If you’re asking athletes to dig deep into their brain, you don’t know what they’re going to reveal so you need to be prepared to deal with whatever they might find. When it comes to the three phases of the mental game, there’s no one size fits all approach; as much as possible, everything you activate should be all individual plans based on individual needs.”

Wessels said that once the invitation was extended to him, he felt it was important to attend so that he is equipped with the knowledge to be able to implement mental wellness programs at the Rebels.

“We are really serious about wanting to take our players’ welfare seriously,” Wessels said. “The only way in which we will get better in doing that is by investing time and energy into our understanding of how to do that as well as it possible.

“We have a goal of wanting to be a destination Club, which also means that when people come here they never want to leave, and to be successful in that we need to make sure that our players feel like we’re taking care of them. In order to do that, we need to actually understand what the latest science and research is telling us in that space.”

Wessels first began working in Super Rugby in his native South Africa a decade ago, and has watched as mental health has become something that young men are becoming increasingly comfortable to talk about.

“I certainly feel like there has been huge progress in players identifying that they might need assistance and being prepared to come forward,” he said.

“For mine, I think the gap which has possibly been there in the past that is how best do you manage it once you’re confronted with that request for assistance, and I think that is something we have been trying to bridge over the last few years and will continue to try and educate ourselves on.

“That’s at one end of the spectrum; the other benefit to upskilling in this area is gaining more knowledge around helping people to actually live their best life. We want to do our best to make sure our players are happy, they feel fulfilled and challenged.

“It’s not just about the serious mental illness side of things, it’s about genuine mental engagement and wellness for everybody.”

Gray paid tribute to the AFLPA for holding the Conference, and the Australian Athletes’ Alliance (AAA) network for the support network it manifests among its’ contemporaries.

“Coming together as part of the AAA is so important,” Kim said. “Through PDMs in other sports, I’m constantly finding great contacts within the network here in Melbourne and benchmarking best practice. We have so many aligned issues, and an athlete is an athlete regardless of what sport they play, so to be able to bounce ideas off each other is invaluable.

“We all just want the best outcomes possible for the people we’re looking after, and I was really proud to have Dave there. He’s so invested in this area, and he understands as a young Coach that there is immense pressure for himself and for these players.

“From the Board of Directors to the Executive and the High-Performance Unit, the importance of athlete wellbeing and welfare at the Rebels is so highly valued and there is genuine engagement in these areas.

“The athletes’ wellbeing is just as important to them as it is to me, and we all want to provide them with an environment to be better people. For Dave to hear different case studies from other sports and athletes, and the dangers if their mental health isn’t taken seriously, is eye opening and provides real food for thought.”

To find out more about the Conference, click here.

Pete Fairbairn
Communications Manager
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