Wellbeing Hub

7 Keys to World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs

Female track athlete leaping with title 7 keys to world class athlete wellbeing programs

1. Clearly define what wellbeing means for your organisation

It might sound basic, but starting at the beginning with a clear definition of wellbeing is an essential first step in any effective athlete wellbeing strategy. Not only does a clear definition provide clarity for your key stakeholders but it also becomes an ongoing evaluation tool to ensure each component of your strategy and key processes remains true to first principles.

2. Be clear on the philosophy of your organisation’s approach

Understanding how your philosophy of wellbeing informs your approach is key.

Does your philosophy value happiness, meaning, life satisfaction or whole-person wellbeing? When your organisation makes a call on your philosophical approach you are making an important decision that has implications for all aspects of your strategy, planning process and the effectiveness of your program.

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs take a biopsychosocial approach and therefore their approach is grounded in whole-person wellbeing.

Many organisations claim their philosophical approach is based on whole person wellbeing but often it is merely a subset. Many flawed approaches to athlete wellbeing claim to be holistic yet their approach has a very narrow medical model as their centrepiece, which is often driven by organisational risk mitigation. Such an approach is appropriate when treatment (mental or physical) is required but not ideal for preventative, whole-person wellbeing. Safety nets are not prevention, they are necessary, but they are not prevention.

3. Create a wellbeing model that is truly athlete-centric

The best athlete wellbeing models are athlete-centric. They are aligned to the organisation’s definition and philosophy of wellbeing and they recognise the biopsychosocial nature of athletes’ worlds. They are holistic, well defined and in language that makes sense to athletes. They are defined in ways that consider how we as humans live our lives and aren’t communicated in abstract, overly academic language.

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs have wellbeing models that have well articulated strengths and weaknesses which are clearly communicated to athletes, coaches and officials. World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs know whether their wellbeing model is a complete whole-person wellbeing model, performance model or a hybrid, and understand why.

The best wellbeing athlete models don’t try to “smuggle in” a wish list of organisational expectations (e.g. code of conduct) and dress them up as wellbeing. Because when this happens athletes see straight through the motivation to the real intent – which is control. These “smuggled in” wellbeing dimensions belong in organisational policies and employment agreements not athlete-centric wellbeing models.

4. Employ an athlete-centric, evidence-based, human motivation model

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs have a deep understanding that creating an environment of trust, where the psychological contract is respected as much as the legal and economic one, is essential to success.

Therefore, every component of their wellbeing strategy (from the wellbeing definition onward) clearly links to and is tested through the robustness of their human motivation model and approach.

As a plethora of peer reviewed, published research evidence demonstrates, athletes respond far more positively (in most circumstances) when they are provided with autonomy, through choice. This includes the choice whether to participate in wellbeing programs. These choices must be respected for wellbeing programs to have any authenticity.

The focus in World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs is on enabling those athletes who opt in, to self-determine the wellbeing knowledge and skills that are most important to them.

Such programs ask athletes about what matters in their lives and their related wellbeing priorities. Once informed about these priorities, great athlete wellbeing programs then develop programs to fit the individual or groups, not the other way around.

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs ensure their programs are highly customised to the person and they avoid the all too common “sheep dipping” or “I know what’s best for you” approaches, or a smorgasbord of loosely related wellbeing fads.

When an organisation chooses an evidence-based human motivation model they are laying their cards on the table about their authenticity. It sends a powerful message about the organisation’s true motivation and commitment to holistic athlete wellbeing. Unfortunately, few organisations value this important component as they should.

5. Build robust processes and tools that are athlete-centric

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs understand and value processes and tools that are athlete-centric because they know this is the credibility link to their human motivation model (see above).

Robust wellbeing processes are athlete-centric value chains. In other words, each step in the documented wellbeing process adds value to the next – from the athlete’s perspective not just from the organisation’s perspective.

Each step in the process and the subsequent procedures can be (and are) clearly explained to athletes including the evidence-based rationale, the functional and practical implications – including commitment and accountability.

Built into these robust processes are protections and safeguards from a privacy, confidentiality, data protection and security perspective.

6. Develop multiple measures of athlete wellbeing, organisational wellbeing and business outcomes

Measurement is key to the success of World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs because it enables goal clarity, athlete and program monitoring, impact evaluation, resource allocation, capability assessment and financial ROI.

The best wellbeing programs not only track and monitor subjective and objective athlete wellbeing but they regularly use key wellbeing measures as a motivational tool to empower athletes to take action, to persevere in the face of obstacles and to link commitment back to athletes’ valued living priorities.

These measures also enable the organisation to see what’s resonating, where athletes are taking action, what’s working and what initiatives are simply not working and thereby wasting resources, including financial resources.

The right measures also enable comparison between those athletes who are engaged in wellbeing and those who are not. This provides an evidence base for the short, medium and longer term.

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs spend time developing their suite of measures to ensure they are fit for purpose and are able to measure what matters from multiple perspectives; athletes, organisational, commercial, stakeholder and sporting code/sector.

7. Hire qualified, capable and passionate staff

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs hire and retain A players – people who are in the top 10% of their field for the available money.

Few organisations have unlimited budgets for athlete wellbeing programs. But it is possible to hire (wellbeing) qualified, capable and passionate staff. The best programs have qualified and highly passionate wellbeing generalists in the front line. Because they value their capacity to think prevention, be creative, think holistically, transfer knowledge and skills and remain persistent in the face of adversity. These qualified and passionate generalists rely less on their expert stance and more on their ability to help athletes find solutions within themselves.

Some organisations value narrow degree qualifications, which might be perfect for a narrow specialisation, but might not be so appropriate for holistic (biopsychosocial) wellbeing.

World Class Athlete Wellbeing Programs are not easy to create.  But with clear thinking, a focus on athletes, alignment and integration of all parts of the strategy from the outset, amazing things are possible.

The only question is: “Is your sporting organisation up for the challenge?”

Steve Johnson is CEO of the Wellbeing Science Institute and is the co-author of the worlds first holistic wellbeing qualification for people who work with elite athletes