In her fulltime role looking after the wellbeing of our top rowers, Tina Ryan would like to see athletes unafraid to speak up, and some rowing mums return to the sport. 

‘Athlete wellbeing’ has become a phrase heard with increasing regularity.

Hard to define, hard to achieve at times, athlete wellbeing is becoming a key priority for sports organisations.

And for Rowing New Zealand, athlete wellbeing is so integral to their high performance programme, they’ve created a new role purely to oversee it.

Tina Ryan, who took on the challenge last year, says her job as ‘athlete wellbeing lead’ is essentially to be an athlete advocate, providing leadership and direction.

“I tell rowers, ‘I’m here to help you with the system, and with what needs to change in the system, so you can flourish in this environment’,” she says.

With the athlete’s voice finally being raised in sport around the globe, Ryan wants our top rowers to be confident to speak up.

She wants to encourage female rowers to have children and return to the sport. She wants to make sure athletes don’t sacrifice everything to achieve. And she’s determined to ensure rowers are valued and empowered within the system.

“I don’t want athletes to feel like they’re part of a conveyor belt where they can be easily spat off and no-one cares about them,” she says.

Rowing NZ athlete wellbeing lead Tina Ryan shares a laugh with rower Jordan Parry on the banks of Lake Karapiro. Photo: Rowing NZ

Athlete wellbeing has become the priority it is today, Ryan explains, because of the many advantages it confers – as well as obviously being the right thing to do.

“There’s a growing body of research that says you cannot have performance without being in a well state,” she says.

“And if we invest in wellbeing, athletes are going to enjoy their sport more, they are going to stay in it for longer, do multiple [Olympic] cycles, not just be one-and-done.”

Ryan, who’s based at Lake Karapiro, points out that New Zealand doesn’t have the advantage of an enormous talent base to draw from.

“We don’t have as many people as some of the countries that treat athletes like water, so we need to look after our resource pool better,” she says. “And having an experienced athlete remain on a programme is of value to everyone on the programme.”

Creating positive experiences within sport also increases the chance athletes will give back, Ryan says, and become coaches and officials one day.

She believes Rowing NZ were already “ahead of the game” when she joined the organisation, thanks in part to their athlete representative group – a mechanism to ensure rowers’ voices are heard. But that hasn’t stopped her quickly getting new wellbeing initiatives underway.

One of those involves taking a more holistic view of the concept of wellbeing.

“Physical health and wellbeing was most monitored and understood,” Ryan says. “I saw a huge opportunity to integrate the mental, emotional, social and spiritual parts of the wellbeing model into the daily training environment.

“So we’re all talking about the whole athlete and not just the physical athlete.”

Tina Ryan has been involved in high performance sport for 20 years. Photo: Rowing NZ. 

Ryan, who has lectured in sport psychology and worked as a mental skills trainer, hopes to educate and upskill the entire support team in the area of mental health.

“Being able to respond to mental health challenges, being aware of signs that somebody is struggling – athletes or staff – mean we can all look after each other,” she says.

Ryan has been involved in sport for over 20 years. She completed a doctorate at the University of Waikato exploring how high-performance sport impacts athletes’ lives.

She’s been a mental skills trainer for the White Ferns and an athlete life advisor at High Performance Sport New Zealand. Throughout that time, she’s witnessed a shift in the system.

“When I first started researching, there were a lot of people in the system being treated poorly and struggling,” she says. “High performance programmes in New Zealand have evolved and I think we’re much better at recognising that we’re dealing with people who have feelings, and knowing our decision-making impacts significantly on their lives.”

Since leaving academia, Ryan enjoys being able to make a tangible difference to the lives of athletes.

“I can see the difference I’m making. People come up and say, ‘thank you for that’,” she says.

While Ryan believes athletes are listened to more than ever before, she sees further frontiers yet to be navigated.

“We’ve had a couple of members of our men’s team have children. But we’ve not had female rowers leave to have a baby and come back into the system,” she explains. “As athletes’ careers lengthen, I would love there to be a shift in how we accommodate that.”

Tina Ryan chats with Rowing NZ women’s double sculls coach, James Coote. Photo: Rowing NZ. 

Having supported elite athletes for many years, what advice does she have for the next generation stepping into the world of high performance sport?

She’d like athletes to reconsider the belief they have to sacrifice everything in order to achieve at a high level.

“Athletes coming into high performance are just so grateful to be picked. They’re so excited about being there and start sacrificing everything because they think it’s necessary,” Ryan says.

“But when you speak to athletes who have been in the system for longer, they all talk about the importance of having something else going on, whether that’s study or maintaining relationships with people not involved in sport.

“Having multiple identities, having something outside of sport that gives you joy, being around people who don’t just know you as an athlete, those sorts of things make it so much easier to rebound from the highs and lows of sport.

“I think an experienced athlete would tell a younger athlete: ‘Don’t give up everything for sport; sport is not going to give up everything for you’.”

At a time when sporting organisations are beleaguered by scandal after scandal, Ryan acknowledges there is always room for improvement.

“Rowing is committed [to athlete wellbeing] but that doesn’t mean every single person who’s walked in and out of this building [rowing’s high performance centre] has had a positive experience,” she says. “We’re trying to make sure we get there, but I wouldn’t say we’ve done everything right so far, and that’s why we are constantly looking to improve.”

Ryan believes the challenges many sports are currently facing are seated within a broader global context, pointing to parallels with the #MeToo movement.

“It’s about people without power feeling as though they can speak up and use the platforms they’ve got to make changes,” she says. “And the athlete voice is one of those voices now being heard, whereas previously there was no capacity for that to happen.”

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