Caroline represented Australia in Taekwondo at the Olympics in Athens in 2004. She also competed at World Cups and World Championships. She is the founder of Performance Edge Psychology and delivers workshops/skill building seminars to athletes, coaches, teams, businesses and schools to help them be more resilient under pressure and to perform more consistently.
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So from your understanding, can you describe the meaning of dual pathways careers for elite athletes?
First of all, I really like that term “dual pathways”. It certainly wasn’t something in my vocabulary when I was an athlete. It’s a really nice way of describing the model and to me it really implies equal importance on sport and life outside of sport. It helps us move away from that more traditional contingency mindset of plan A and plan B. That plan A, plan B dichotomy is really interesting; it’s having an alternative action plan that might not ever be needed unless plan A goes horribly wrong. It sets up an interesting mindset that is the reason why many athletes don’t undertake any study while participating in sport. I think they feel like it might somehow indicate less commitment if they’ve got two options, plan A and plan B. They might worry that it would dilute their sporting efforts, ie. hedging their bets.
So I like the wording of it, “dual pathway”, and I think it’s quite clear that it’s OK to have both. It’s about building and applying a range of skills and what athletes haven’t really thought about is that a life outside of the sport, whether it’s work or study, can actually improve their sporting performance. But it certainly was my experience that it was really beneficial. When I think about dual pathways, I also think that it’s important to highlight that, in my opinion, there can be a great variation between the different sports and codes. There might be a different mindset and set of expectations between athletes in Olympic sports and other professional sports like AFL or cricket, for example. Also, there are differences in the high and low profile sports, and high and low funded sports.
The sport that I competed in was a very low-profile sport and low-funded sport. So walking into it from the very beginning, I knew that it would never be a source of income for me during my sporting career and after retirement. So it was just a no-brainer for me, it wasn’t even really an option. But having said that, some people within my sport chose not to work or study.
Do you think there’s any performance perceptions within the athletes that somehow you’re lessening your focus by having more than one thing going on in your life? So if you do try to create a life where you’re pursuing two goals at the same time, that it’s impossible to achieve the best in both?
I think that’s traditionally been the idea. We’re kind of always told, “Work really hard and you’ll get the outcome.” And so it’s that idea that I have to do this thing 24 hours a day, I have to live, breathe, and only do sport and that shows my true commitment and my true desire and that’s the only way that I’ll be able to reach my goal and be happy. I think that can get a bit tricky because what that doesn’t take into account is the sense of burnout, of balance and looking after our whole selves, not just our sporting selves.
Is the idea of burnout or committing so much to the sport something that you see as a challenge for athletes? Or is it broader than that in the high-performance mindset?
In my experience of working with athletes, I certainly see that sense of burnout being a major concern and something that I work with. But it’s one of many challenges in a high-performance environment. Being a psychologist, a big area is performance anxiety, but also just anxiety and stress management regarding all the stresses that go along with being an elite athlete. Another big area for me is around self-doubt and fear of making mistakes and those setbacks. For me, they were what I identified with as an athlete.
Also, managing pressure and how to manage those personal relationships. Sport is not done in isolation; we have very complex and often really intense relationships with teammates, coaches and managers. They can often be dysfunctional or problematic and can impact on high-performance mindsets as well. The other areas I work with athletes on is life balance and perspective-taking and identity and self-worth.
Are there any observable differences in performance between dual pathway athletes and those athletes that have a more singular focus on their sport?
Yes. I think that there are absolute performance differences. It might be as simple as learning time management skills or having varied social interaction or just having an alternative identity outside of the sporting area. These aspects help to give dual pathway athletes greater efficacy in life in general, but also through times of adversity such as on selection. I think these things can help with resilience.
Some of the young athletes that I work with – and young athletes often obviously have to be schooled as well – might be elite athletes training up to 30 hours a week, but they’re still at school. The young ones that I’m working with, the 9 to 12-year olds, what I’m noticing is it seems to keep them grounded and help keep things in perspective because they have other areas in life that are not sports-related. They also get regular breaks from intensive training and that pressure, and it helps interrupt that cycle of constantly thinking about sport or poor performance at training.
The other thing I’ve noticed with young athletes that I work with is they might be very clear about their dreams and aspirations in the sporting world and might be really clear that they want to compete at the world champs or go to the Olympics, but pretty much all of them also know that they want to be a doctor, they want to study science, they want to go to university. They seem to intuitively know that you can do more than one thing at that young age, and they have their friends around them to model that idea on.
When they leave the school environment and the structured dual pathway framework around them, does their sport facilitate moving away from that by having them focus on their performance solely?
Yes. In sporting organisations, it’s just not standard. Going to school for a young athlete is standard, it’s just part of what they have to do. But after that, it’s an option and it’s not a discussion that’s had in those early years.
Are there other benefits that you see to dual pathways in high-performance athletes?
I think you can help manage anxiety and manage pressure just by being able to step away. It can make us feel more recharged and energised when we do go back into sport, going back to training that evening for example. When I was competing there was a small amount of envy toward athletes who could train full-time and not have to think about work or studying to support themselves. I remember feeling that a little bit: “I wish that I could just train full-time.”
When people asked me, “How do you manage work and training?” even at the time I could really identify the benefits and I felt a sense of gratitude having that alternative focus. I was studying for many years as I was training, but in the last year and a half prior to the Olympics I was working full-time. I felt quite lucky that I had two things that I felt equally passionate about.
What I realised most was that I just loved having that mental break from sport, because I would become almost too obsessive! I was an incredibly determined and driven athlete, and working meant that I had other interests, hopes and dreams for my future. It also helped my sense of identity that I wasn’t just an athlete; I was also a student or an employee in a workplace. It gave me a sense of accomplishment outside of the sporting arena; I knew that I had other skills. Also there was a sense of mental recovery as it gave my brain time to heal and reflect and strengthen by engaging other systems of the body, more like a relaxation response.
I didn’t know much about mindfulness at the time – this was 12 years ago – but it was a type of mindfulness for me. I was really engaged in the present when I was at uni or when I was at work and I was actively practising recovery. We’re very aware of the concept of recovery for our body and our muscles, but we’re not very good at thinking about it in terms of the brain. I think that’s what I was doing at the time, but I really wasn’t aware of it. I just felt in a better headspace and refreshed and strengthened for training.
Do you think that there is a positive or negative view in sport towards dual pathways at the moment?
I’m a step removed from the sporting organisations because it’s via the athletes, so I don’t have that direct contact with the sporting organisations. I feel like they support it, but don’t necessarily promote it or see it as any of their business. As long as you get to training, as long as you do all the things to meet all the expectations, then that’s my sense of it, but I probably don’t have as much information about that.
And your experience as an athlete? Was it much the same?
Yes. Within my team, some of the elite athletes were studying, we weren’t all working. They were definitely supportive; I never felt any pressure not to do it, but I got the time off to travel because we had an immense amount of overseas travel. So you have to make sure that you can find either a workplace or university that is willing to support that. It was always a delicate balance, but I certainly never felt that it wasn’t supported.
Is there a greater awareness around the need for athletes to have an interest outside of sport?
I’m very hopeful, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s not just about dual pathways, but it’s also holistic well-being for the athlete and athlete transition and the relationships within sport. That stuff just isn’t really explored or prioritised and I think they’re some of the most important elements of not just sport, but sports performance.
If you’ve got a terrible relationship with your coach, how are you going to perform at your best? If you don’t have any kind of life balance, how are you going to perform your best? So I’m really hopeful.
We know the AFL has been really good at implementing well-being programs and they’ve obviously got their minimum requirements in terms of study. They’re definitely making progress and they’ve got the funds to be able to do that.
Yes, they spend about $13.2 million per season on that.
Yes, they’ve made a strategic decision because a lot of it is probably also to do with that team culture portrayed in the media. So they’re motivated because they knew that needed to change so that’s why they’re willing to spend the money. A lot of other sports probably don’t have the money and there’s probably not much motivation to do it.
Do you think if they saw it more as part of the performance discussion, the motivation might change?
Yes and that’s where it needs to go. There needs to be more research, more evidence based around how closely it’s linked. I think it’s going to come but it’s still a long way off.
I think the awareness around some of the challenges are hopefully shining the light on some of the opportunities. That’s what we’re very keen to do is to make sure that we have both sides of the discussion, so that we don’t just see the negative effects of athlete transition and well-being in the media, but we also see the opportunities for how better programs in that space can lead to better well-being and broader benefits for the athlete and for the sport and performance.