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Staff wellbeing in sports

The recent news about Rob Howley has undoubtedly shocked the sporting world. One thing that is clear from the whole story is that a seasoned professional can mask a lot of deep underlying issues while still delivering a high-quality service. Thankfully, he seems to have recovered, and it makes it abundantly clear that with the right support, most people can turn the corner.

The question then is, should you wait for your next Rob Howley to appear or are you willing to do something now to make sure that the wellbeing of your staff is a high priority? The focus on athlete wellbeing has been a welcome change in recent times, but there is still a lot to be done for the staff. In this blog, we try to address the issue and also attempt to give you some useful suggestions.

The staff with no subs

The increase in the size of the travelling squad provides at least one substitute player in every position who can step in when needed. With staff though, there are not many roles that are easily interchangeable. A PA's job is very specialised compared to the physio's, whose job again is very different from that of an assistant coach. Moreover, most key staff member looks after the entire squad and not just a small aspect of the team. An athlete on standby is quite the norm these days, but it is very challenging to find a last-minute replacement for a staff member.

The terrors of the tour

Most people on tours with teams usually love travelling. At the same time, it is also quite easy to forget that a well-travelled, adult member of staff is also a human being and who can be easily thrown off by some common challenges. I will list a few below that I have witnessed, but I will welcome your comments on anything that is missing here-

  1. Homesickness- some tours can be quite long, and for the new parent, the newlywed, etc. the feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming at times.

  2. Jet lag and lack of sleep- the role of a good night's sleep in the wellbeing of a person, is well documented. Be it due to jet lag or a snoring superstar roommate; sleep deprivation can be a huge issue. I remember waiting to go out on team walk on a particular tour. The PA said he would meet us downstairs in 10. He never turned up. It turns out he fell asleep in his chair, waiting. Poor chap had slept only for 8 hours. Over the past three nights, I must add.

  3. Change of routine- it is important to remember that things like daily exercise can be a big part of some staff members' routine before they go on a tour. To suddenly stop exercising can have a detrimental effect on people's mood.

  4. People issues- Personality clashes can occur in any situation involving a group. They need to be addressed and nipped in the bud before they can either escalate or continue to give a bad vibe on the backburner.

  5. Social isolation- Here is a true story about two people on tour. The names are changed to prevent identification. Apryl was a happy go lucky character. Before the journey began, everyone was aware that Apryl was having a hard time in her part-time job. The team was keen to support her and Apryl liked the camp environment anyway. Very soon, she became re-energised and was in her elements throughout the camp. The camp proved to be very therapeutic to her, and she went back as a much happier person. Jo, on the other hand, had no such problems coming into the camp. She enjoyed touring and was looking forward to the tour. However, Jo realised that the staff had many micro-groups within the team. She was not a part of any of the groups and felt instantly isolated. The tour ended on a high for the team, and everyone assumed that Jo must have had a great time. Jo came back from the trip and suffered from her mental health for weeks to come. The team remains oblivious of this fact.

  6. Issues outside the camp- Such is the stress of our daily lives these days that people do carry a bit of baggage with them. Such problems can be tricky for people to identify unless the staff member is well known to the rest of the squad. Work-related stress, grief, separation, financial worry, etc. can all play a significant role in the mental health of a person. The coping mechanisms are different, and the outlets can vary too.

Plan and prevent:

'A stitch in time, saves nine', as the old saying goes. The following steps are essential to identify any issues with the staff members and in turn, prevent any major crisis from happening in the future.

  1. Awareness: 'The eye does not see what the mind does not know'. There is a lot to be celebrated about the recent increase in recognition of the mental health challenges that exist in sport. At the same time, there is a lot that still is needed. It is more important than ever for people to acknowledge that mental health problems are real and treatable. Various organisations are increasingly using some courses like MHFA (mental health first aid). The training is now being available online the team management should do what is possible to allow their team members to get the training.

  2. Wellbeing checks- There are various questionnaires and scoring systems currently being used. They are mostly available for free download. The most common ones are the Warick-Edingburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS), Personal Wellbeing Score (PWS), ONS4, Wellbeing Assessment (WBS), Individual Wellbeing Score (IWS), HPQ, WPAIQ, etc. Which of these will suit your team will need a more detailed assessment. The best advice is to seek expert help. (Backroom Medics will be happy to help).

  3. Changing the team culture: Creating a culture within the team environment where individuals find it easy to discuss their struggles is a crucial first step. Such a paradigm shift can be brought about by the medical team in partnership with the team management.

  4. Problem management- any highlighted problem then needs to be managed by referring the individual to the appropriate specialty.

The thriving team

The ultimate dream for any team manager is to have a team of experts who are happily interacting with each other and delivering an excellent service. Such a group may not be easy to attain, but here are some suggestions that might help.

  1. Team meetings and team-building- sounds obvious, but is easily missed when pressed for time. Such a meeting, although technical, is an excellent chance to observe one another. Keep an eye on the non-verbal cues and follow it up with a simple wellness check.

  2. Mindfulness- I was first introduced to the concept of mindfulness in sports by my physiotherapist friend Hywel Griffiths. Since then, I have applied it as a part of my recovery tool on athletes aged 12-21. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Some staff members have joined in at times, and they have found it very useful. With apps like Headspace readily available on smartphones, it is not too difficult to connect it to a speaker and enjoy a group session.

  3. Laughter therapy- Laughter yoga has been around for a while but recently has gained more popularity. The concept is simple. The human brain cannot distinguish whether you are laughing because you are thrilled or whether you are pretending. Nonetheless, after a good laughter yoga session, your brain will believe that you have had a good time and will not worry about protecting you all the time. Now here is an exciting variation; in my recent tour with a U21 team, I was amused to learn that the staff would meet every night to go through an award ceremony. A pair of dancing shoes was given to the staff who had gone above and beyond their call of duty. A donkey was awarded to the member who might have had a lapse of concentration during the day. But the whole point was to break the ice, and it was a laugh riot for about 30 mins—a total laughter yoga workout without needing to fake it.

  4. Dedicated time for exercise- As highlighted earlier, it is difficult to suddenly stop exercising if exercising is a part of your daily lifestyle. Instead of seeing it as a forbidden fruit, there can be time included in the itinerary for staff do use their downtime wisely.

  5. Dedicated time to communicate with family- With the availability of Facetime other apps, it is another critical way to beat the feeling of yearning and homesickness. Again, it does not have to be seen as a taboo topic, but a frank discussion and planning can help the staff set aside some time to ring home. Perhaps buddying up can help, eg, physio and doctor take turns, the manager with the assistant manager and so on.

  6. Sleep hygiene- early birds tend to struggle with being up till late. There are other factors like outside noise can play a part. If such a trigger is identified, it should be promptly addressed.

In summary, it is a genuine issue for the staff members to go through difficult times themselves. Instead of brushing it under the carpet and hoping for the best outcome to happen naturally, a wise management team should involve themselves in proper planning. After all, you are looking after the team behind the team.

To quote Rob Howley, "What I've learned is it's important to talk about feelings, instead of suppressing them and hoping they'll go away. There's no shame or weakness in showing emotional vulnerability."

Neeraj Sharma, @neeraj_sports, our doctor with dual qualifications in Sports Medicine and General Practice.

If you would like any support in the looking after the wellbeing of your support staff, Backroom Medics will be delighted to help.

Please get in touch for any sports medicine cover for team travels and events. We are a team of doctors, physios and paramedics.

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