Life outside sport key to athlete success argues Griffith sports management researcher

Matt Denny, Australian Olympian discus thrower and Griffith Business student
Matt Denny, Australian Olympian discus thrower and Griffith Business student

When our local athletes enter competition at next month’s Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (GC2018) the support systems they have in place should give them an edge, even allowing for home-soil pressure, according to Griffith University researcher Dr Caroline Riot.

Joining a Brainfood Breakfast – Sporting Success, Nature vs Nature panel (23 March) for World Science Festival Brisbane, the Senior Lecturer with Griffith Business School’s Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management will make the case for the importance of what happens outside sport in an athlete’s life, as a determining factor of both performance and career longevity.

While her co-panellists might argue the hard science of genetics and specialised physical training, Dr Riot believes that the support networks in an athlete’s environment provide the social and emotional backing that are key to sporting success – what she calls the ‘personal development perspective’.

“Resilience, which is often learned in childhood and outside of the sporting arena, is really important,” Dr Riot said.

“Actually growing up with some challenge or disadvantage early in life provides an extra edge of ‘grit’ and ‘mental toughness’ when it comes to their sporting performance.”

Dr Caroline Riot says the pressures and expectations on players should be revisited in the wake of the Essendon supplements saga.
Griffith’s Dr Caroline Riot says life outside sport, makes all the difference to performance

Locally, Olympic champion Sally Pearson has previously spoken of the challenges of growing up with a single mother and pursuing her sport, and Dr Riot believes Pearson provides a good example of the transferable skills of resilience helping an athlete succeed. Others develop important transferable skills through education and career opportunities.

Olympian discus and hammer thrower and Griffith Business student Matt Denny is quick to acknowledge the team behind his success, along with the importance of his Aussie country upbringing in instilling the integrity and values that have attracted good people around him.

“I say we, when I’m talking about my sporting goals with the professional team I’m lucky to have around me, and in terms of my family and friends I can’t stress how much that 100% country-style sense of community commitment has helped me,” Denny said.

“In terms of balancing sport and life, which I really believe in especially when it comes to pursuing study and longer-term career goals, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be able to cope without the support of Griffith Sports College in juggling everything.”

Griffith Sports College is assisting 22 current students who will compete in the GC2018, along with a number of alumni competitors. Also among them is lawn bowler Kelsey Cottrell, a veteran of two Commonwealth Games, Griffith alumnus and current student, she’s now juggling being a new Mum to 7 month old daughter Sienna.

“I love my sport and the Commonwealth Games are special because lawn bowls is a core sport and we get more exposure, but I wouldn’t want sport to take over my life and I have to plan for my future career with study,” Cottrell said.

“If you don’t live, eat, breathe sport I think it makes the big moments like the Commonwealth Games, where I’ll have all my family and friends supporting me, even more special.”

Lawn bowler Kelsey Cottrell
Lawn bowler Kelsey Cottrell won silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games

When it comes to identifying athletes early, Dr Riot argues that while natural talent is clearly crucial, athletes who are funnelled into a particular sport at a young age, particularly when that involves a narrow focus and living away from home, don’t have the longevity of those who transfer into a sport they love later on.

She makes the case for decentralised model of elite sport programs, allowing athletes to retain support from family and friends, and lead a more balanced life, complete with a fun factor.

“We need to look at the whole picture and the whole person – providing a stable environment that nurtures emotional wellbeing,” Dr Riot said.

Dr Riot’s career in high-performance sport started in 2001 when she was awarded an International Olympic Committee grant for research across 8 countries and 3 continents.

In the lead up to GC2018, she’s leading two legacy projects targeting women’s sport development, and co-leading a Commonwealth Games Federation project on intensive high-performance sport programs for Oceania athletes.

Come April, Dr Riot will be cheering on the Aussies, and Griffith University athletes in particular, but with a not-so-secret soft spot for the Oceania athletes she’s worked with.

Griffith University has been ranked in the top two universities in Australia for support of elite athletes, by the Australian Institute of Sport. The Griffith Sports College is headed by Olympic champion rower Duncan Free, OAM, with the support of Olympic water polo gold medallist Naomi McCarthy.