Macquarie alumnus and NSW Waratahs flanker Michael Wells started his Rugby Union career as a member of the Australian Under 20s team.
Having played elite competitive rugby from a very young age, Michael is aware of the stress which can arise from the pursuit of sporting excellence – especially when you’re also trying to attend to other pursuits such as study, work and relationships.
As an ambassador for Macquarie’s Centre for Emotional Health (CEH), Michael is visiting campus this month for the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Mental Health Youth Forum 2019, where he’ll be speaking to high school students about managing negative feelings, stress and anxiety, and giving them advice on how they can find balance in their pursuits.
We sat down with Michael to find out more about how he manages his mental health as an elite athlete.
When did know that you wanted to make professional Rugby your career?
I think the desire to have a career in rugby was always something I had from the time I started playing at nine years old. But it was probably around the age of 15 or 16, when I was first selected in a national training squad, that I became more focused on the possibility.
How have you dealt with setbacks in your career?
My first year out of school, I was part of a National Academy, but was plagued with a chronic knee injury. I had two surgeries in a couple months, which resulted in some wear on my bones and a diagnosis that arthritis would be a real chance for me. One doctor even said that if I was walking in my mid 20s, it would be an achievement. For an 18-year old, this was obviously confronting.
I dealt with it by just continuing training and focusing on getting back to playing. I leant on my partner who was really supportive and helped significantly in getting me through it. I also chose to distance myself a little bit from rugby, just to refresh and focus on my studies and personal relationships, which often come second to the demands of rugby.
Many young people have to cope with rejection (e.g not making a sporting team) or failure (e.g not performing as well as they’d like in a test). What advice can you give them?
I think rejection is a natural part of life. While it’s hard, and not always fair, you always have to keep perspective. You tend to learn more from rejection than you do from acceptance. And when you don’t make a team or get a good grade for a subject, it allows you to undertake some reflection and internal examination of how you approached it and to ask yourself: Can you be better? Could you have done more? What would you do differently next time?
I feel as though society tends to make us look to shift the blame too much when things don’t go our way. Accountability and ownership for your own shortcomings allows you to stay grounded, but can also keep you motivated when shortfalls or rejection occurs.
Elite athletes can be prone to mental health issues. What can athletes do to deal with feelings that come with loss, rejection or unpredictable change?
It’s something people probably don’t realise from an outside perspective, but professional sport can be quite lonely and even unfulfilling to an extent. Most people who became athletes are incredibly aspirational and driven; they have high standards and set even higher goals for themselves. When their careers are cut short from injury or other circumstances, it’s incredibly hard to deal with, leaving you with the feeling of embarrassment that you haven’t achieved everything you wanted or fulfilled all the hopes others have for you.
Sport can also be quite lonely. You tend to train and travel, separating you from your family and friends back home. You miss important events and milestones, like birthdays and anniversaries. But the biggest aspect of loneliness you feel is getting pigeon-holed as just a sports person. People tend to only talk to you about your sporting endeavours and conversations run dry when you try to shift into general conversation. Your identity is centred on sport and, for most people, that’s who you are. When that’s gone, some individuals lose what they believed was their core personality trait and sense of identity – it can be overwhelming to deal with.
Personally, I’ve tried to keep my personal life separate from rugby. Having relationships that are external to rugby and completely separate from it can really allow you to build a sense of identity that is independent from your sporting career.
What advice can you give to students to help them stay resilient in the face of anxiety or hopelessness?
It might sound condescending, but it’s never as bad or as hopeless as you think. When you’re in the middle of a dilemma or feeling anxiety or depression, it’s hard to see any positive or upside. It’s important to talk and get help, because outside advice can put things into perspective for you. Being able to lean on support networks like friends, family or partners is something that cannot be underestimated.