Picture this: a group of 30 burly, muscular men are seated in a room. One chair is positioned in front of the group. It’s the speaker’s chair, and the men take it in turns to occupy it. The others listen intently, their gaze not shifting from the person sitting before them. For the person sitting at the front of the room, there’s no topic of discussion, there’s no script and there’s no time limit. What the listeners are inadvertently asking of the speaker is this – let us see you. The real you. Tell us your insecurities, your vulnerabilities, the things that scare you, the times you have felt shame and the times you haven’t felt worthy. Yep, it’s deep. For this reason, more often than not, the words are interspersed with tears. But this isn’t a therapy group.

It’s a sporting team. Some of the team members will have known each other for over a decade, and yet in these brief moments, they will learn more about their mates than ever before.

For more and more elite men’s and women’s sporting teams in Australia and around the world, this scenario is becoming a reality. And it might just be the most important session the team does for the whole season. It follows a growing trend toward embracing the human-first, athlete-second philosophy. A philosophy that emphasises great importance on a person’s mental health. 

The buzzword among elite sporting organisations at the moment isn’t toughness or aggression, despite the importance of these traits when the first whistle blows. It’s ‘vulnerability. From the NBA to the Premier League, from the AFL to the NRL, clubs are rushing to embrace it. Pre-season boot camps have been shunned in favour of these group sessions sitting in a room together, talking about insecurities and weaknesses. So, why the change? First and foremost, it emphasises the importance of honest and meaningful communication. It also creates a strong bond between the players, building a culture of empathy and respect. Players are encouraged to speak up if they are experiencing a tough time or managing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. The sporting environment hasn’t always been one that encourages this level of openness when it comes to mental health. It has often been seen as a place where vulnerability is a sign of weakness and a mental health condition as a private battle to be fought but not spoken about.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sporting teams who have embraced vulnerability and open dialogue around mental health have often enjoyed better on-field results. Players are aware of the experiences of their teammates and as the saying goes, are far more ‘willing to run through walls for them’. 

Related reading: When to talk vs when to listen

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