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Rhian Bird with AIS Win Well Award

Champion of athlete wellbeing


Mental ill health among athletes is becoming increasingly recognised, researched and publicly shared. And ACU alumna Rhian Bird is part of a new wave of wellbeing professionals at the frontline of intervention and prevention, helping athletes stay well and perform better.

When US gymnastic great Simone Biles withdrew from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics citing mental health concerns, she created headlines around the world. The then-24-year-old won widespread praise for prioritising her mental health and speaking openly about the pressures she’s faced in her career.

Earlier in 2021, US tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after she chose not to speak to the media to protect her mental health. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis bad-boy Nick Kyrgios and AFL gun Bailey Smith have all openly shared their mental health struggles.

These athletes are far from alone. A growing body of research shows performing at a professional or elite level in sport can exacerbate certain mental health symptoms and disorders.

Goal Setting Workshop with NSWIS Netball Program

Rhian running a goal-setting workshop with the NSWIS Netball Program.

“High performance sport isn’t synonymous with wellbeing,” says Rhian, High Performance Wellbeing Manager at Archery Australia.

“It’s tough. It’s brutal. Deselections happen all the time. You can be the absolute best – and someone can just be better. It’s a really harsh environment to be in.

“We know that this pressure cooker of an environment is going to lead to more mental illness in our athletes if we don’t step in and intervene. And I see it as an untapped potential for performance.”

Seeing the whole athlete

At Archery Australia, Rhian puts athlete wellbeing first through a high-performance program.

She draws on experience as a physical and health education teacher, outdoor guide, careers advisor and coach, as well as a decade specialising in athlete wellbeing and postgraduate studies in high performance sport at ACU, to guide her work.

“I’m on the senior management team, so I look after wellbeing for athletes, coaches and to an extent our performance staff as well,” she says.

Rhian as Archery National Team Manager at the Taiwan 2023 Asia Cup

Rhian as Archery National Team Manager at the Taiwan 2023 Asia Cup.

“One aspect of that is one-on-one coaching with athletes over a long period of time, where we have consultations and work through issues, set goals and develop life plans that line up with their performance plans. That can include things like career planning, finance, education, family relationships and parenting – a suite of things that are personal to the individuals.

“I don’t necessarily solve all those problems, but I help refer people on and bring in the right people to help solve those problems.”

Her team also delivers group workshops on what sponsorship looks like, how to align sponsors with athlete values, financial planning and basic budgeting skills.

“Those wellbeing pieces help our athletes with performance and enable sport performance, they don’t detract,” says Rhian. “The more organised we are and the more support we put around their wellbeing, the more available athletes are to compete at the highest level.”

She says coaches are also supported with their career development, education, and physical and mental health, so they can “be the best they can be for their athletes too”.

This holistic approach to success was recognised when the program Rhian manages won the inaugural Win Well Award at the 2023 AIS Sport Performance Awards. 

Rhian running a Facilitating Coach Development Workshop in 2022.

Rhian running a Facilitating Coach Development Workshop in 2022.

It’s about sustainable performance

Wellbeing hasn’t always been a priority in the hyper-competitive world of high-performance sport.

When Rhian moved to the sector in the early 2010s, high-performance wellbeing was a relatively new concept, she says, and it’s been an uphill slog getting it taken seriously.

“Trying to introduce wellbeing into these historically not supportive environments has been challenging,” says Rhian, who has worked in a range of different sports and sporting organisations, including the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS). 

“I have been the first person to hold my role in many sports I have worked in, meaning a large need for influencing, creating best practice, and an evidence-based approach to service provision. But I’m extremely proud of some of the gains I have made in sports around the country in my 10 years.

“My postgraduate studies at ACU were extremely helpful in elevating my approach to designing and delivering a wellbeing strategy within the sporting context for athlete and coach success in sport and life, and I continue to apply learnings from this course to help me influence change for the sector.”

That said, there are some inherent challenges that Rhian doesn’t see budging, “because sport requires a level of sacrifice and dedication and that’s hard”.

Rhian Bird presenting at AIS WC2WB Conference 2023

Rhian presenting at the AIS World Class to World Best Conference 2023.

She says a fair few of her battles have been around trying to shift mindsets among people who don’t understand wellbeing or how to use it to create sustainable performance outcomes. Coaches or high-performance managers may also have concerns around taking time away from time-poor athletes.

“That is changing over time, which I think is reflected in Australian High Performance Sport System’s new HP2032+ Sport Strategy, which is all about winning well. That has been a great shift in the system.”

Wins, and what’s next

Despite the very real challenges in her field, Rhian says the wins are worth it.

“My work is really rewarding. Because of the nature of high-performance sport, sometimes it does feel like an uphill battle, but in saying that it just highlights even more the importance of the work to make sure our athletes are sitting in a really positive way.”

Rhian has hit many bullseyes in her career, but one of the accomplishments she’s most proud of is the AIS Share a Yarn Program.

“Share a Yarn is a community engagement program that looks at creating allies and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes,” she says.

Rhian as National Para Team Manager for an AIS camp.

Rhian as National Para Team Manager for an AIS camp.

“They have a mentorship program, and some community engagement initiatives they do to try to increase the safety in sport for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes and ensure we have better experiences and better knowledge sharing around that.

“I was really thankful to have designed and delivered the program in its inaugural years, and then I handed over the reins to former race walker Beki Smith. She was one of the first athletes that came through Share a Yarn and she’s now doing great things with it.

“That’s always going to be my baby. It’s kicked some great goals and I think it will have long-term impact.”

As for next steps, Rhian’s looking forward to progressing down the management track to become a high-performance manager.

“We often see the ex-physio, the ex-coach, the ex-athlete step into those roles, but I think wellbeing providers have the perfect skillset. And imagine the wellbeing influence we can have if performance directors run programs with wellbeing embedded into what they’re doing.

“Maybe one day I’d like to be CEO, but let’s start with the five-year plan hey? I’ve also got two young kids, so I’m not in any rush.”

Are you ready to enter the world of high-performance sport? Find your course at ACU.

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS registered provider: 00004G | PRV12008