Wellbeing for Athletes With a Disability

Professor Russell Hoye

In the 16th episode of Sport Unpacked, Professor Russell Hoye (Director, La Trobe Sport) talks to PhD candidate Hannah MacDougall (Centre for Sport and Social Impact, La Trobe University) about her thesis – the concept of wellbeing and how it applies to athletes, specifically those with disabilities.

Wellbeing in relation to athletes is an important concept – they face unique challenges and stressful environments, and while it is not a visible illness it can affect an athletes performance and is becoming more of a focus, as well as balance in other aspects of their life.

As well as studying her PhD, Hannah MacDougall is an Australian paralympian aiming to compete in the cycling events at the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio. She won a bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Games in the Women's 4×100 m Medley 34 pts event.

To subscribe to this podcast or listen to previous episodes you can find them in the Sport Unpacked collection on iTunes U. You can follow the host Russell Hoye on Twitter: @RussHoye, and Hannah MacDougall:@HanMacdougall06.

transcript

Professor Russell Hoye
Welcome to Sport Unpacked, a regular podcast that explores issues in sport and the views of researchers at La Trobe University. I'm Professor Russell Hoye, Director of La Trobe Sport, your host, and my guest today is Ms Hannah Macdougall, a PhD candidate from the Centre for Sport and Social Impact, here at La Trobe University. Our topic today is wellbeing for athletes with a disability. Welcome Hannah.
Hannah Macdougall
Thanks Russ, it’s great to be here today and I’m very excited to have a bit of a chat.
Russell Hoye
You’re doing a PhD on wellbeing for athletes. Can you explain for us what we mean by the concept of wellbeing in general?
Hannah Macdougall
A very loaded question to be honest, with the concept of wellbeing is the view that very much a fluffy term and very holistic in what it does encompass. And to be honest you can have climate wellbeing, social wellbeing, psychological wellbeing, pretty much any type of wellbeing you want to put a label with. We have narrowed it down quite substantially for my PhD, to focus on social wellbeing, psychological wellbeing, and subjective wellbeing, which all have very defined measurements behind it. So while they are no less or more important than other facets of wellbeing, that’s what we’ve chosen to focus on for the PhD. But wellbeing is all about essentially helping people to live life to the fullest, a little bit of a corny catchphrase but at the end of the day, we all want to be happy, we all want to have our family and friends and spend quality time with them, and while we might not always be outwardly happy, so feeling happy and joyous and all those positive emotions, we can still have a high level of wellbeing in the sense that a mum who’s been up all night tending to her three-month-old child will be feeling extremely tired, but her wellbeing can still be extremely very high. So there’s a whole lot of these different components to it, and I’ve focused on a few of them in my PhD.
Russell Hoye
Wellbeing in relation to athletes must be a really important concept because we’ve seen recently in the news that Jonathan Trott’s been … he’s asked to go home from the Ashes Tour, for reasons related to stress, so that’s obviously linked to wellbeing, so wellbeing is an important concept for athletes, isn’t it?
Hannah Macdougall
A hundred per cent. We face as athletes unique challenges in terms of, you’re in a really stressful environment and those coping strategies need assistance sometimes. And absolute kudos to all the governing bodies, supporting bodies, who have made that decision in recent times and recognising that while we may not be able to see this illness, it is still an illness and just as serious as breaking an arm. Wellbeing in that sense can help to increase an athlete’s foundation, these base of support, so when we do fall over, we are faced with all those pressures of competing on the world stage, having hundreds of thousands of people look at us, our country on our jacket pocket and we’re standing up there, and then we’ve got to perform, having this wellbeing concept come into it, hopefully allows them to have a little bit more resilience, more coping strategies, and then also taking into a little bit of the positive psychology space, a mindset that is going to benefit them for the specific outcomes that they’re after.
Russell Hoye
Yes. So the wellbeing concept in simple terms is sort of related to not just their onfield or on court or on track performance in terms of being a foundation for good performance, but also for balancing their other aspects of their life.
Hannah Macdougall
Very much so. So, we don’t want our athletes just to be successful on the field, the research has shown that athletes who have success and are stronger and more resilient in other facets of their life and going to perform better on the sporting field anyway, so that’s all about helping them improve their social connections, their meaning and purpose outside of sport as well.
Russell Hoye
Okay. And you’ve chosen to do an even more complex PhD topic, because you’ve chosen to do some comparison between athletes with a disability and those without, in terms of their wellbeing. So what do you hope to find? Why the comparison there? Is it important for one group more than the other?
Hannah Macdougall
There are so many similarities. I mean, at the end of the day, athletes, non-athletes – we’re all human beings. We all have blood circulating through our veins. By comparing athletes with and without a disability, the purpose behind that is to see if that added resiliency is going to shine through when you have a disability, because yeah, you have to overcome certain things, and while at the end of the day, we do pretend that we are super heroes, we are still human and there are different challenges such as, for me personally, popping out with a little bit missing, so I’m an amputee, and that has resulted in wearing a prosthetic leg since I was eight months old. I can run to save my life, or if you know, Johnny Depp’s standing on the other side of the room, but I get stress fractures really, really easily, so until technology catches up with that, then running probably isn’t so much for me. So there is these different and unique components that go along with having a disability that could come into play with the wellbeing space.
Russell Hoye
Okay. And your PhD topic cuts across a lot of disciplines. You sort of cover wellbeing in general, then you’ve got health, psychology, disability studies, so you’re cutting across a lot of fields of knowledge. How have you tackled undertaking a PhD in that sort of level of complexity?
Hannah Macdougall
Well, I feel, why make life boring? Why not make it a little bit more interesting? The logic behind that – wellbeing is multi-disciplinary. I needed a multi-disciplinary team, so I actually have three different supervisors for my PhD, which is absolutely fantastic and while at the end of the day it will be Hannah Macdougall completing the PhD, it isn’t a solo effort, and having that support structure around me is absolutely critical, but then it’s also allowing a different set of eyes to come to the table and different viewpoints, so it’s going to be a lot stronger, a lot more robust, and a lot more, hopefully, worthwhile PhD in the long run.
Russell Hoye
And one of your first steps, I know, that you’ve done, is to undertake what’s called the systematic review. And I think you enjoyed that a lot. So, what does that involve, actually doing one of those?
Hannah Macdougall
So, a systematic review … it’s probably more from a health science discipline and coming from a very management background, it’s very new to me and to be honest, I have had to crack open my single malt Scottish whisky that I bought in Edinburgh last year open in recent times to get through it. It’s essentially a very … what the title suggests – it’s a systematic way of looking at different studies, comparing these different studies, and seeing if there’s any differences between the two groups that you’re looking at. So for me personally, is there a difference in the wellbeing of athletes with and without a disability? Going through 1,078 titles and abstracts was just a barrel of laughs.
Russell Hoye
Given that context, what’s your motivation for doing a PhD on this topic?
Hannah Macdougall
I did have to remind myself a few times, during that process, what it was. The main motivation behind doing my PhD is to help other people and I think we probably all get to that point during our lives, when we’ve been through school, we’ve worked with our parents, and our teachers and all these other people in our lives, and we get to the point where, like, well how can I start helping other people? That’s the driving force behind that and then obviously identifying your passion areas, what you’re good at, for me it’s always been sport and disability, so then combining all those different things is the motivation behind the PhD and helped me get through those 1,078 abstracts, and titles.
Russell Hoye
So, apart from your PhD studies, you’re also an elite cyclist, cycling with the VIS. So can you give us some insights into some of the challenges of being an elite athlete with a disability?
Hannah Macdougall
We’ve come in leaps and bounds during the time that I have been an athlete and when I first came on to the scene way back in 1999, when I was a little tacker in another sport, when I was a swimmer, and smelt like chlorine 24/7, we had to fund our own trips. There was a lot of fund-raisers going on at presentation nights for swimming clubs, and some of my earlier trips were only made possible through anonymous donations by people and for me that was just … I was very blessed and very lucky to have that in my life and then such strong support from my parents. Moving forward, where, as athletes, when you reach a certain level in your sport, then you receive funding from the government, you don’t have to pay for trips any more, the uniform you get is just absolutely amazing, at the Victorian Institute of Sport where I’m on par with the able-bodied athletes in terms of funding, access to services, and all that kind of thing. So we have come in leaps and bounds, obviously, we still have a long way to go in terms of media and awareness and equality, especially for females in Paralympic sports, so we’re really targeting that in the next five years I believe from an IPC strategic approach, which will be really exciting. We’ll just keep seeing Paralympic sport grow and grow. So a few challenges to overcome yet though.
Russell Hoye
Okay. Could you give us an insight into what your event is and what your training regime is like in a typical week? What sort of stuff do you have to do?
Hannah Macdougall
Definitely. So, I am currently targeting a time trial on the road. So for me, training for those events, they are a very big discrepancy in terms of time, the 3km pursuit on the track is just over four minutes or so, compared to the time trial, which is about 13km which takes, you know, about half an hour, roughly speaking. Training for that involves, just an example, we have generally two days off the bike per week. I’m doing a bit more track work, so that’s cut it down to one day, and I’m doing three gym sessions and every other day I’m on the bike, apart from that Friday morning, which is a very good day. It gives the body a chance to recover. During those sessions, they’re all targeted in their approach. So this morning it was a long hill session out to Mount Eliza and did a few laps around Humphreys and Two Bays, then it will be some time trial efforts later in the week, down Beach Road. I might for some hills later in the week, go up to the Dandenongs. Sunday is generally race day so you’ll have criterion circuit or something. It’s pretty full on and riding approximately around 300km a week, dedicating in total including not only training, but yeah, recovery, physio, massage, nutrition, all those kind of things about 30 to 40 hours a week of being an elite athlete on top of the PhD, so you know, the coffee comes in handy.
Russell Hoye
So, no spare time at all? Some of the issues about being an athlete with one leg, how does it work on a bike? Is there a power differentiation between your left and right legs, and how that works?
Hannah Macdougall
Definitely. I coined the term recently from a Pilates instructor, Paula. She was beautiful. She was like, Hannah, so you’ve got your Brutus, which is your left leg. So where there’s no bit missing, and then you’ve got your Julius Caesar which is your right leg, where there is a bit missing. So essentially my left leg has always been more power-dominant and is 60% compared to 40% of the power output of my right leg. And while we are trying to minimise that difference through gym work, through training, it’s just through being aware of it, we now have this technology using power crates I can actually see my power balance from left to right and have that immediate feedback. So it has provided quite a few challenges, not only in terms of power differences but also in terms of setting up a prosthetic cycling leg and dealing with the discrepancy, because my femur is shorter on the right side than on the left side, and so then you have from your knee down to the ground, that portion of my prosthetic leg is going to be taller on that side, and so then I kind of bash into my right side. It’s very interesting and logistically complicated, but we’re slowly working out way and teasing out all these challenges to overcome.
Russell Hoye
And that’s where your own self-management, your coach’s role, the technology, the bike design, all plays into managing yourself so that you don’t injure yourself as well, isn’t it?
Hannah Macdougall
A hundred per cent. I rely on these people so heavily, so my prosthetists, my coaches, the sports scientists at the VIS, my physical prep trainer at the VIS, your massage therapists, your physiotherapist, all these people kind of have to be speaking together to get this one athlete moving in the right direction, so it’s very much a team effort.
Russell Hoye
And you’ve recently spent some time with the Australian Ballet, doing some Pilates I hear.
Hannah Macdougall
I have. So Paula, down at ABC, has been putting me back together after some recent hip surgery over the past two and a half years and I’ve got nothing but praise for her, but I do kind of work in there feeling very much like a cyclist and not like a flexible ballerina, so there they are kind of doing their pirouettes and touching their toes, and you know, I can touch my toes if I take my leg off and that’s cheating though. It’s a very different world over there and I’ve got nothing but respect for all of them. But it has definitely helped my cycling a whole lot and targeting those very small muscle groups that they need to use to do their pirouettes.
Russell Hoye
So we’ve seen some insights into your PhD which seems fantastically complex and interesting, but also your challenges about managing your training load and balancing PhD and all the other bits of your life, and training. Going back to your research, what are some of the challenges you’re going to face in accessing participants in your research study, when you go and talk to athletes. Is it athletes with a disability, you know, totally willing to get involved in this sort of stuff, because it’s going to be of benefit to them in the long run?
Hannah Macdougall
I am very fortunate to have connections with the Australian Paralympic Committee and while it is very days, these early discussions have put forward the ideas or the suggestions that we could focus and work with the wheelchair rugby team, so the boys, and their murderball sport. So that could be interesting in terms of some possible resistance when you’re trying to get them to perhaps do a very big concept in wellbeing is mindfulness, or relaxation. And getting these guys to actually take a breath out of life and sit there for five minutes could be interesting, but on the one hand I don’t want to pre-judge them so we’ll see how that rolls. Another sport that the APC manages is goalball. That will be very different again, so we’ve just put together the first female Australian goalball team and just a different sport, different environment, and some people come from the situation where they are extremely disabled, or maybe not so disabled, so then you have all these different support structures around them that might influence the program and all those kind of things. So, then obviously being athletes and their small availability to do anything outside of their sport is going to pose some unique challenges as well, but being athletes they can always be bribed with food, so that’s probably what some of my research budget will be going to.
Russell Hoye
All right. Thanks Hannah. Thanks very much for talking with us today and good luck with both your study and your cycling. That’s it for today. Thanks to Ms Hannah Macdougall, a PhD candidate from the Centre for Sport and Social Impact here at La Trobe University. Thanks also to Matt Smith, the man behind the curtain, from La Trobe University, for his great production. You can also follow Hannah on Twitter, @HanMacdougall06 or me, @RussHoye. You can also find a copy of this podcast on the La Trobe University website under the news tab and also at www.latrobe.edu.au/cssi.

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