Women in Sport: Suzy Russell, Mental Health Project Manager, Queensland Rugby Union

21st February 2020

“Lots of elite athletes are seen as heroes and role models – we need to make it more acceptable for them to take charge of their mental health during their career.” 

The importance of mental health

In the sport and health sector, Suzy’s current role spans many organisations; she is a PhD candidate and researcher looking at mental fatigue in elite sport at the University of Queensland, partnered with both Queensland Academy of Sport and Netball Australia.

In addition to this, Suzy has just begun a job at Queensland Rugby Union as their Mental Health Project Manager. A government-supported position, the aim is for it to be rolled out to educate rugby of all levels about mental health.

“People need to have more open and positive conversations around mental health, and in the sports industry, things need to change in terms of funding and psychological support.”

Suzy believes that in the past year, we’ve put more of a focus on athlete’s mental health and wellbeing. “Governance wise, there is a responsibility to optimise athletes’ mental health both within and beyond their sporting career.” She presses the point that when athletes are in good mental health, they perform well, their careers are sustainable and have longevity.

Openly communicating to players, asking them regularly whether they are okay, making it a normal conversation – these are all simple steps that we need to do. “As sports scientists or S&C professionals, we need to educate ourselves on the early signs of mental ill-health and appropriate support seeking actions”.

Research in mental fatigue

When the subject turns to Suzy’s PhD topic, mental fatigue, Suzy tells us that there already is existing evidence that it can influence technical, physical and tactical performance, but the research is lacking ecologically validity in terms of what it means for athletes. In Suzy’s study with the Australian Netball League, it showed that both mental and physical fatigue increased during a game, but only 13% of the time did they relate to each other. “We must consider them as largely separate constructs which interact within the applied sporting environment.”

When working as a Performance Analyst with the Queensland Firebirds, Suzy looked at salivary markers of mental and physical fatigue, which both fluctuated over the pre-season phase. Therefore, Suzy suggests that as a training stimulus, coaches should be inducing mental fatigue during the pre-season phase. She has seen brain endurance training garner results – where the athlete is made to complete a hard cognitive task whilst cycling on a bike; “this improves VO2 max beyond what just physical training would – there is a big role of mental fatigue in an athlete’s ability to perform.”

The differences between genders

Having worked with a lot of netballers, but also the Brisbane Lions (AFL), Brisbane Broncos (NRL), and Swimming Queensland, Suzy discusses quite openly the differences between working with female and male athletes. She recalls how Richard McInnes, Former High Performance Manager at the Firebirds, told her “I think you’ll be surprised at how many questions the girls ask” and came up with the analogy of “male athletes want to know what the time is, female athletes want to know how the watch works”. Suzy’s experience at the Firebirds developed her as a practitioner, learning to balance best evidence with practical scenarios, and was a “great opportunity to develop reasoning behind why we operate as practitioners.”

Female teams on the whole have less resources, which “challenges you to be more intuitive”. With less funding, Suzy highlights how female athletes have a lot more going on in their day – they are mixing working, studying and training – “there is an absolute balance of sport and life in sports like netball, and acknowledging that makes you think more about the person, not just the athlete.”

Suzy also brings an interesting perspective to the different ways that males and females interact on the field itself: “a great strength that males have is their assertiveness – they communicate straight away, then move on.” On the other hand, female athletes are more inclined to talk through why mistakes happened on the field; “they listen to feedback from each other, to help each other improve, together.”

Support and mentors

When asked what can be done to encourage more women to enter the sports performance industry, Suzy highlights that it’s important “to recognise the contributions that organisations and people are making to address the current issue – where we’re making progress already.”

In her third year of university, Suzy was guest lectured by Dr Shona Halson (another of our Women in Sport interviewees), and was inspired by her “intelligence, kind nature and realness.” But, she stresses, role models don’t have to be female, we should celebrate the males that are providing support and encouragement to fellow practitioners. Suzy lists Vince Kelly (QUT) and David Jenkins (USC) (her PhD supervisors), Richard McInnes (Water Polo Australia), and Scotty Borlace and Brendon Zhou (Brisbane Lions) as being hugely important male role models and supporters.

Suzy highlights that as females, we have a responsibility to highlight the good, but also speak out about the problems that we see to provide awareness to the issue as a whole. “If ever I have an intern’, Suzy quips, “I make sure to ask them what size kit they will need. There’s nothing worse than having to wear a men’s size large because that’s the only one they have in the cupboard!”

Human value

When looking ahead to the future, Suzy makes clear that human connection plays a huge part in optimising player performance. “We’ll see an advance scientific understanding of brain and wellbeing, but we must always remain aware of the important role that culture plays. We can’t become so reliant on technology that we disregard human practice.”

However, there are significant challenges that come with being empathetic in an applied environment; “it’s hard not to be emotionally invested in the athletes – you must remain objective and try to maintain perspective.”

Suzy highlights the need to recognise the value that sports scientists and S&C staff add to organisations. “When you come in as an intern, young staff need to be rewarded both in learning and professional development, and financially.”

The balance of wanting to do both research and practice has been tough, but Suzy stresses how we “can’t be afraid to follow through with the area that you believe in and care about” – in her case, mental performance and mental wellbeing. Suzy puts a clear focus on learning opportunities: “Take opportunities where you prioritise your learning and development as well those which aid everyone around you.”

Sport is fast moving, and the realisation that things can’t be done to perfection has been a learning curve – “you have to be adaptable to the time demands, and learn to control the controllable.”

However, Suzy’s biggest challenge has been learning how to fail. “Failure is part of the process as long as you learn from it”, and this positive mindset is evident in her work today spearheading mental health in sports science. Suzy leaves us with the parting powerful comment; “Flip your failing mindset to a growth one, and be brave enough to be bad at something new”.