Coaching pair prioritising person over athlete

If sport is a universal language then, on the subject of mental health, football’s Graham Arnold and swimming’s Simon Cusack speak in one clear voice.

Despite the disparate natures of their chosen sports, chief among the respected coaching pair’s shared philosophies are prioritising the person over the athlete, and emphasising that mental health and wellbeing – not results – come first.

Following a fine two-decade playing career here and abroad that included 54 appearances for Australia, then success in multiple manager/coaching roles in the A-League and elsewhere, Arnold has led the Socceroos’ program since 2018.

And on a recent day in Sydney, he attended squad training run by dolphin-whisperer Cusack, whose two best-known products are the Campbell sisters: Olympic relay gold medallists and former freestyle world champions Bronte and Cate.

Arnold was fascinated, having long admired the mental strength and hunger of those who follow the silent black line on their journey through an individual sport. The rules/tactics/disciplines are different, but so much of what matters – particularly given the current coronavirus complications that include social isolation and dealing with the emotional toll of a postponed Tokyo Olympics – is so very similar.

“There’s four pillars in anything, (the) technical, tactical, physical, mental – and the mental has gone to number one,” says Arnold, who describes involvement in elite sport as currently “not an easy gig”, given the relentless scrutiny and volume of outside noise.

“If the mind’s not clear, and if the will and the attitude isn’t at 100 per cent then you’re never going to get the best out of the athlete. So caring for the person is more important for me than the player.”

Adds Cusack, a multiple coach-of-the-year who has attended six world championships and two Olympics: “You’re not going to get anything out of (athletes) if they’re not happy. You’ve got to win their trust over. They have to believe that you have their best interests at heart before they’ll go to the wall for you.

“So it’s always a fine line between stretching them, because without a bit of agitation none of us grow, but also just keeping it in check so we’re not pushing them too far. It is harder these days I would say. Just like it’s harder being a parent.”

Not least because of the pervasive infuence of social media – which is sometimes positive, often not. For these and other reasons, Arnold and Cusack welcome the important holistic “tools” supplied by the AIS Mental Health Referral Network since its launch in 2019.

Designed to support athletes, coaches and others within the Australian high performance system who have mental health or wellbeing concerns, the program provides priority access to a network of AIS-endorsed psychologists, psychiatrists and neuro-psychologists nationwide.

In Arnold’s case, geography is one great challenge in the time of Covid-19. With most Socceroos based overseas, it’s crucial to recognise the early warning signs, and clear that Zoom meetings provide an incomplete glimpse.

What, for example, of the player taking several days to reply to a text message when a response would usually be immediate? A red flag, perhaps, that something is not right. One that came via a valuable tip from the Mental Health Referral Network.

Cusack, like Arnold, hails the greater recent awareness and resourcing in the wellbeing area, including the difficulties transitioning to life after sport. Yet coaches, too, need allies, and there is shared admiration for rugby league legend Wayne Bennett, whose great skills include when to push buttons and how to manage egos.

Among the trusted mentors in their own fields, Arnold’s have included World Cup generals Guus Hiddink and the late Pim Verbeek, while among Cusack’s coterie are peers Denis Cotterill, Shannon Rollason and former Swimming Australia head coach Jacco Verhaeren (as well as Sydney Roosters boss Trent Robinson).

It is accepted that a) criticism comes with what can be a lonely and unforgiving job, and b) it is really all about the competitors. So nurture, empathise and enjoy it, says Arnold, for there is immense pride in helping an athlete reach the pinnacle, whether that be an Olympic gold medal or a contract in the English Premier League.

Aside from the importance of support networks, Cusack shares another secret to coaching success. “You don’t want to take yourself too seriously,” he says. “There’s the old saying that you’re in the penthouse one day and the other ‘house’ the next day. I try and stay somewhere in the middle of the building!

“You can be forgotten pretty quickly. I think you’ve just got to have the best interests of your athletes at heart. It is an immense responsibility. I think if you’ve done your best you’ve done enough.”

A universal message. In a language everyone can understand.

/Sport Australia Public Release. The material in this public release comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.