Former Olympian Sally Hunter Helps Young Athletes Protect Their Mental Health
Sally Hunter intimately knows the extreme pressure placed on elite athletes when they are at the top of their game.
The former Olympic brewer competed in the Beijing and London Games and won a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
These days, the West Australian uses her post-swim career to mentor young female athletes and help them meet the challenges of elite competition.
As the Tokyo games shed light on the issue of mental health, which has long plagued elite sport, Hunter said more work needed to be done to better support the well-being of athletes.
“I think that’s probably the most important thing… it’s not just one day in their career, it’s not just two weeks of the Olympics,” said Hunter.
“They work their whole lives to get there and they need an incredible support network around them.
“[I want them to] know that I have probably been through the same things too and being there to support them and help them develop their mindset to become mentally stronger athletes. ”
“Everyone is human”
This year, Hunter worked with 16-year-old Meg Hopkins, who is aiming to qualify for the Commonwealth Games Trials.
“Sally and I are very close, we go for a walk together… it’s kind of like she’s a big sister to me,” Hopkins said.
The teenager said seeing some of the biggest names in the sport – including Simone Biles, Liz Cambage and Naomi Osaka – prioritize their mental well-being had been encouraging to watch.
“Simone Biles is very influential so I feel like she is stepping down because of her mental health is very inspiring,” she said.
Hopkins hopes to follow in his mentor’s footsteps to one day represent Australia on the world stage.
“My coach Wayne and I are working towards the Commonwealth Games next year so I hope I can take advantage of this experience,” she said.
“But someday I would like to get an Olympic gold medal. See how we’re doing.”
Hunter believes that having positive role models is essential in helping young athletes thrive.
“You always idolize people and see them as something bigger [than you], but they’re just humans, ”she said.
“I think [it’s important] to have someone who is a role model or a mentor to look up to and say, “you know what, if they can do it, why can’t I? “
Hunter wants more coaches to focus on supporting athlete mental health.
“I think it’s just important that we listen to the athletes… they’re their best defender, they know each other better than anyone.
“So they have to have the confidence and the ability to come forward and say to people, ‘I need help’, or ‘I’m not able to do it now’.”
Normalized “fairly toxic behavior”
Psychologist Courtney Walton, who researches mental health in elite sport at the University of Melbourne, said conversations in the field of sport were moving slowly.
“We have standardized [in sport] kind of pretty toxic behavior and totally unrealistic expectations of what athletes or people should be doing, “he said.
“A lot of people seem to think that mental toughness just means putting up with anything and doing whatever it takes to win and I think it’s kind of a culture that has just developed in elite sport, and we kind of all made do with it, but I think that’s starting to change. ”
Dr Walton, who works primarily with athletes and artists, said many well-known athletes have struggled behind closed doors with crippling mental health issues.
“A lot of athletes… very high performance athletes that we all know well and who have performed well for us will talk about absolutely debilitating anxiety before performances… throwing up in the bathroom, a few minutes before enter the field.
“I think it’s easy for us to forget how much pressure is placed on these people.”
Creating a path for more female coaches
Hunter, who has only had male coaches in her career, said one of the biggest issues for young female athletes is having male-dominated coaches, which often prevents them from opening up.
“We just saw on the Olympic Games [swim] team that there were no female coaches, but there are a lot of female coaches in Australia.
“I think it’s just a very difficult industry. I think a lot of industries that are extremely male dominated [are] hard for women to break in, hard for women to get credit for the things they do.
“I came from an amazing program as a start-up coach… in South Australia and they had a high performance female coach.
“We were the only club in Australia to all have female coaches so we have a lot of support and a lot of kudos for that.
“We just have to continue to make sure that we are paving the way for elite female coaches.”