Sarah Roder, a registered psychologist with an extensive background working in high-performance sport and wellbeing.
We recently caught up with Sarah to talk about her work with athletes, leading the Athlete Wellbeing & Engagement Program at Squash Australia, and the challenges the pandemic has brought to working within the space.
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Zushan Hashmi: Tell us a bit about your life outside of, and prior to Squash Australia.
Sarah Roder: I’m a registered psychologist with an extensive background working in high performance sport and wellbeing. After a short stint working in mental health, my career in sport began as an Athlete Career and Education Advisor at the Victorian Institute of Sport.
Since then, I have run a small private practice, coordinated the Graduate Certificate in Career Counselling for Elite Athletes at Victoria University and worked with a number of different sporting organisations including the Australian Institute of Sport, Gold Coast Suns AFLW, Tennis Australia, AFL Players Association and Professional Footballer’s Australia (Melbourne Victory).
Besides my role with Squash Australia, I work with student athletes at Somerset College on the Gold Coast. I have a genuine passion for empowering young people to reach their full potential in sport and in life. I want athletes to know that they can do it all. They can play sport at the highest level and achieve their career and/or life goals. It may not be easy, but it can certainly be done.
When I’m not working you will normally find me at the beach – either walking my dog or watching my kids train and compete in surf lifesaving!
What does your role as the Athlete and Wellbeing Manager at Squash Australia involve?
My role as Athlet Wellbeing & Engagement (AW&E) Manager involves supporting athletes with their off-court wellbeing as they navigate their High Performance squash career. I help athletes find a balance between their elite sporting requirements and other important areas of their life. This might include career, education, personal development, mental health and wellbeing.
We want an athletes’ experience in high performance sport to be positive. We want athletes to plan for a career beyond sport so they may one day embark on an alternate career with optimism and confidence. We want athletes to live a rich and meaningful life. To do this, the sporting culture must be one that is inclusive of wellbeing and one that can support athletes to develop an identity that is much more than just being a great squash player.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have come across when working with athletes, particularly in squash?
The biggest challenge for many elite athletes is balancing their sporting career alongside other important areas of their life–family, education, career, social expectations, etc. Getting the balance right is a big deal. When life alongside sport is managed well, it means that come game day there is little to worry about except the game.
Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficult situations, is also something that athletes may struggle with. This is a really important skill to develop because most athletes will need to deal with a disappointing performance, injury, non-selection or other setback at some stage in their career.
And what goes into assisting them in overcoming these challenges?
The AW&E program is designed to help athletes develop the knowledge and skills to cope with competing demands, but also to build capacity to decide, improve resilience, set realistic goals, cope with transition points and plan for a career alongside sport. The support is individualised for each athlete depending on their needs and extends to mental health servicing if required.
With the current pandemic, your role must have become even more integral in the daily lives of athletes. Tell me a bit about how this has impacted the athletes and what it has meant in terms of your role?
I was only a few months into my role with Squash Australia when the world was hit by COVID-19. We’ve all experienced the pandemic in different ways, but for many athletes it has been a profound sense of loss. Losing on court practice, loss of face-to-face training, loss of competition, loss of the opportunity to put carefully formulated goals to the test. It gave me the opportunity to connect with squash athletes in a way that was meaningful and relevant. All of sudden, wellbeing was seen as vitally important.
This year has been about helping athletes to realise that sport isn’t just about the end goal. It’s about what you learn, how you grow and the lifeskills that you develop along the way. Athletes have learnt how to reshape goals, set new routines, find alternate ways to stay motivated, and be grateful for the small things.
With more time on their hands, quite a few athletes have started to think about their career alongside squash and have taken part in personal development programs and/or started tertiary education. This is a really positive step for squash and I look forward to supporting these athletes in maintaining the balance and their overall wellbeing as things begin to return to normal.
Before I came on board, it had been a long time since squash had had any sort of wellbeing support, so the athletes are genuinely enthusiastic about getting involved.
Unlike team sports, squash is often, very much about the individual, what does working with the ‘individual’ involve?
Wellbeing is always about the individual, regardless of the sport. Wellbeing isn’t something that you get, it’s something that you do. It’s got to do with actions you take. So, working with the individual is really about helping athletes to develop and take action in ways specific to their own unique needs, values and goals both on and off the court.
And having worked in the industry across various sports and institutes how does the role at Squash Australia differ in terms of what you are aiming to achieve in supporting athletes and improving their health and wellbeing?
Whilst every sport has a unique culture and pathway to success, the concept of wellbeing remains the same. The challenge for me in squash is that many of our top athletes are located not only across Australia but also overseas.
So, unlike work within a sporting institute or football club, I’m unable to connect with most of our elite squash athletes in their home training environment. We have to find other ways. Video calls, phone calls, email. Whatever it takes.
Before I came on board, it had been a long time since squash had had any sort of wellbeing support, so the athletes are genuinely enthusiastic about getting involved. My role is exciting because I get to start from the ground up and work towards creating a culture of wellbeing that is truly embedded into the High Performance program.
Do you think sports are recognising the importance of mental health (considering the importance of mental health in sports has seen an increased public discussion as of late) enough or not? Why/why not?
In Australia I think we have definitely recognised the importance of mental health in sport. The AW&E program is backed by the AIS and has a strong focus on mental health.
Staff within our NSO’s are offered training in mental health literacy and mental health first aid, which helps to reduce the stigma that is often associated with mental illness as well as improve literacy around basic mental health issues.
On top of that, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Mental Health Referral Service is a way that AIS-categorised athletes can confidentially access qualified psychologists. In other sports such as AFL, the players association provides a similar service for their athletes. The support is there, it’s now more about shifting the culture within some sports so that coaches and key staff are comfortable talking about mental health and all athletes are confident to reach out for help if needed.
What is the role of mindfulness techniques and ‘exploring the mental side’ of ones performance to improve their outcomes on the court?
Mindfulness is really just about being in the present moment. In terms of sport, athletes who are able to remain focused on the here and now, rather than dwell on a previous point or think too much about what may or may not happen in the match, are likely to experience improved performance. Mindfulness is a skill and it does take some practice just like any other skill that an athlete is trying to master.
My role is exciting because I get to start from the ground up and work towards creating a culture of wellbeing that is truly embedded into the High Performance program.
Squash is a very demanding sport and constant touring/travel can take a toll on the lives of athletes. From a perspective of wellbeing what is important in these circumstances and why?
It’s hard for athletes to make it as a professional squash player. For Australian athletes, the commitment usually requires relocating overseas. This, in turn, may come with a one-eyed focus on squash with other career or life goals being temporarily put on the shelf. On top of that, constant travel can indeed take its toll on athletes – emotionally, socially and physically.
I think it’s really important for athletes to set realistic goals, maintain a strong support network and remember to take some time out for rest and recovery. In terms of wellbeing, it can actually be really beneficial if athletes are able to slowly work on their personal development or career plan alongside squash. This gives them a purpose and identity beyond being an athlete as well as some positivity around ultimately transitioning from sport.
How would you summarise your role in the context of improving the wellbeing of athletes?
I see my role as being integral to improving the wellbeing of athletes. As a key support person, I’m often the first point of contact if an athlete has a question, a problem or is struggling in one way or another. Sometimes, I may only need to provide information or point them in the right direction but other times the support is much more complex. Having regular contact with athletes means that my role can be more proactive rather than reactive. This is really important.
Athletes have learnt how to reshape goals, set new routines, find alternate ways to stay motivated, and be grateful for the small things
And why do you think access to psychologist and wellbeing support staff should be available to athletes across all sports, big or small?
Wellbeing support is so important for athletes, especially at the elite level where the demands are high. Elite sport is a uniquely challenging environment. We don’t question the need for a physiotherapist or strength and conditioning coach. I believe that psychology and wellbeing support should be viewed in the same way. With greater overall wellbeing we definitely see better performance, and often a longer athletic career – what’s not to like about that!