| Key takeouts
- An athlete-centric family culture can unite a team between Paralympic Games and create a positive team culture for all Paralympians, past and present.
- The concept of 'the mob' brings athletes together and empowers them to develop their own culture and support network.
- Team captains, athlete commissions and former athletes were important in establishing 'the mob' culture.
- Mob sessions are shared across the country through technology and social media which allows athletes to address issues such as mental health and transition programs.
- The 'mob' also includes coaches, officials, classifiers and support staff who are important in developing a positive team culture.
Hello everyone. Thank you so much for having me today. It is always a great pleasure of mine to speak about the team that I am incredibly passionate about, the Australian Paralympic Team who I’ve been working with now for the last nine years. Today I just want to go through the way in which we’ve been able to create a fantastic team culture, something that I’m incredibly proud of. We did it in Rio in 2016 after identifying a few problems with the way that we went about the team culture, not that we did a bad job but I think there were some things that we could have done far better.
The Australian Paralympic Team are the most amazing bunch of resilient hard working talented athletes who also have the capacity to change the perception of disability in the community, not just because of their sporting prowess but because of the way that they go about what they do and we needed to try and help facilitate that.
I’ll just explain a little bit about the team and I guess what we identified as the problem as it were, it doesn’t seem like a problem up on the screen there but we have 18 sports, all but one of which are run by the National Federation, so the Australian Paralympic Committee has very little to do with the athletes in between games times. Those sports run the sports which is quite rightly so. They know the sports back to front. They take them away to world championships. They travel with them. They manage their high-performance programs and once every four years we bring those 18 sports together and call them our one team.
Of those sports, we have 185 athletes and roughly 165 officials, all of whom come together having never worked with each other before in the intervening years and we’re all expected to become one fantastic team who love each other and that’s not always easy. Most organisations, most national sporting teams work together on a daily basis to try and create a team culture and that’s something that they have to work at for months, perhaps even years to get it right. This is something we in the past have had to try and do for an 11 day period once every four years and as you can imagine that’s not something that’s easy.
In addition to that, with the Australian Paralympic team we have seven impairment groups within our team. We have cerebral palsy athletes. We have wheelchair users. We have people with intellectual disabilities and quite often in that team we end up with some subcultures as well. The wheelies tend to stick together. We also and this is a massive generalization but the problems we’ve had in the past as well of you have and I’ll give an example, young males who have been in a car accident, have ended up in a wheelchair and have ended playing elite sport and do very, very well at that but their perception of athletes who have severe cerebral palsy, who have muscular dystrophy, far more severe impairments, they look at them and think “I’m not like that” so already you see a problem within our team that there are differences in the way people treat even different impairment types and that’s something we also wanted to try and tackle.
As I said, once every four years we come together and are expected to be friends and become this one team so this is the issue because in the past it hasn’t always worked well. The concept of the mob is one that started in a tiny café in Brunswick; myself, as soon as I was elected Chef De Mission, decided that we would bring together a team captain or two team captains for the team. We’d had them in about 2004 but those team captains weren’t actually involved until the Games. They were announced at Games time and there was very little time for them to start developing a relationship with the athletes that they would be leading so we announced those athletes at least nine months out from the Games which gave them an opportunity to start helping with that culture. It also meant that my Games time those athletes whose prime concern was their own personal performance didn’t have to worry about feeling they had a responsibility to bring the team together at Games time. The work would be done.
So in this café in Brunswick I had Daniella De Toro who was one of our team captains and Tim Matthews who’s a multiple Paralympian as well, we came together and said “right, well this is the problem. We don’t feel like we have that really united team in between the years and so by the time we get to the Games it’s a really hard slog to try and make the team feel like one”. What we wanted to create was a really athlete-centric family culture, something where people felt like they belonged and felt like not just for the Games time, they felt like that they belonged to something bigger than themselves and that’s what the Paralympic Games is. It’s bigger than just your performance. It’s bigger than making your friends and family proud. It’s about representing your country but also recognizing the past, the present and the future of Paralympic sport in Australia and disability sport in Australia.
The capacity that these athletes have to influence a young child sitting at home watching the Paralympic Games and thinking, “gee, I’m in a wheelchair but I can do anything”. They might not end up at the Paralympic Games but it still gives them that perspective that there is somebody like them killing it on the world stage. We wanted to create a really cohesive and supportive culture as well, one where they felt like we were there for everybody. Nobody was different. Everyone was in the same boat. Everyone was in that team together and as I mentioned a legacy for future Paralympians.
One of the things I guess in the past as well there have been a lot of Paralympians from 1960. It’s a relatively young organisation but from 1960 in Rome all the way through to 2016 we’ve got Paralympians there that feel like they don’t belong anymore. They’ve competed in 1960, 1964 and as soon as they retire they’re not needed by the sport anymore and they don’t feel like they actually belong to something that’s really concrete and we wanted to change that because that’s not fair. They’ve given a lot for their country. They’ve trained. They’ve represented their country brilliantly and we want them to feel like they’re part of a family and part of something bigger.
So we started to involve them a lot more, those past Paralympians. The concept of the mob, we wanted to name it something and I guess one of the most fitting names we felt is obviously a nod to our Indigenous heritage as well in Australia. Indigenous people refer to the mob as a sense of belonging, to describe where they’re from, where their family is from and so if we described ourselves as the mob it really encapsulated what we wanted to achieve. Daniella De Toro also reminded us, she’s from Italian heritage as well, that you don’t mess with the mob. That’s another reason why the name came about but we have a really close relationship with First People’s Disability Network and spoke with them about making sure they were comfortable with us using that term and they said to go for it, which was great and so the mob was born, but how were we going to actually impart that mob on the entire team and so that’s what we set about doing.
So there were a couple of things we started to do. The first thing was in the lead-up to the Games we started to have mob gatherings. We got athletes together in their State of Heritage. All of those who were actually aiming to be part of the Paralympic team in Rio. It didn’t mean that they had to actually make the team. We just wanted to include everybody and those mob gatherings were about talking about what we wanted to achieve with the mob, what those athletes felt they needed in terms of support from their peers in the lead-up to the Games and to really start making them feel connected.
One thing that was really interesting, one of the first mob sessions that we had was an athlete who had not been to a Paralympic Games before and in her mind had a very minor impairment. She fell off a horse and lost the use of one of her feet. She was classifiable as a Paralympian but when she came to a mob session and heard all of the different stories of the Paralympians, some of whom had been in car accidents, some of whom had meningococcal disease and had lost limbs, some people who had lost their eyesight, she actually said “I don’t feel like I’m…I feel…my life’s fine. You guys are…” and one of the girls in a wheelchair said ‘stop. We’re all part of this. It doesn’t matter what your experience is. Every single one of us has an experience and that’s the most important thing. We’re all part of this mob and it doesn’t matter what your impairment type is, where you come from, where you’re going, we are all part of this” which was a really lovely start I guess to the whole concept.
The main thing I guess we did as well is we empowered the athletes and it’s amazing what you can do when you empower those who are part of your team. It’s amazing what they can achieve and what they feel they can do. We started an Athlete Commission which has only just got off the ground where 11 athlete representatives get together regularly and provide the Australian Paralympic Committee with feedback. That’s something which has been really powerful because it’s putting the power I guess in terms of our decision-making back in the hands of the those that we are working for. I think in the past a lot of the time we were making decisions for the athletes where without them, we wouldn’t have a job, so it was really important to get their input.
I mentioned the team captains as well. That was a major, major tipping point I guess in trying to get the mob concept to work. Supporting the gaps is another one, so identifying where there are gaps in service provision for people with disabilities in high performance sport. The Australian Sports Commission and the AIS do an amazing job of athletes who are actually in the system at the time but there are a lot of situations where an athlete might need particularly those with disability, 10 years down the track when they’ve retired, that’s when they need some of the services that are actually provided when they’re an athlete and the incidence of suicide in Paralympians is startling. I know that one of our team captains can name 12 athletes off the top of her head who she’s competed with who have committed suicide in the last 10 years and that is a disgusting statistic and something that we really need to focus on.
So one of the other things we did was we started Athlete Forums where athletes got together and discussed mental health issues and transition issues. Now the Australian Institute of Sport have a fantastic program called Personal Excellence which also addresses some of these issues around career transition, mental health and so on, but this was more identifying in Paralympic athletes where the gaps were, where the APC could start to fill those gaps where perhaps the system wasn’t so much doing that from a high performance point of view when athletes had already retired and that’s something which is having a really big impact and starting to bring some of those athletes from 1960 through to 2016 together in a room. We’ve had a great partnership with one of our sponsors, Optus, who’ve been able to establish technology that we can actually have those mob sessions around the States simultaneously and have teleconferences I guess so that we can have those conversations and the best one yet was one where we had three States involved and we had a 1964 Paralympian sitting next to a 2016 Paralympian, both talking about their experiences and how they felt when they finished the Games, that post-games lull and so on. It was a really beautiful thing to see.
Mob engagement in between Games is a really key thing for us as well because as I mentioned earlier we get together for 11 days once every four years so to maintain that connection is really important so communications become key. We have regular newsletters. We have a Mob Facebook page where they can share thoughts and ideas and I have to say just in the last two weeks I feel like we’re starting to make a difference because on the Facebook page we have 400 members all of whom are past Paralympians and members of the team, whether they be officials or coaches and so on. Up until then Danielle Warby and myself were the only ones who on a daily basis were posting things and in the last two weeks all of a sudden we’re seeing all of these people come out of the woodwork and post ideas and post thoughts and photos and it’s just so wonderful for us to see that finally people feel like they can engage with the team and I think that’s going to stand us in really good stead when we go to Pion Chang next year for the winter Games and then onto Tokyo 2020.
The final thing I’ll mention there is sport by-in because I’ve been talking about the athletes and the officials and how they buy into it but if we don’t get the sports involved and to have them want to be part of this how Paralympic mob then it’s actually not going to work. So the Australian Paralympic Committee as well have been starting to embed ourselves in national teams so whereas we would just turn up every four years and run the Australian Paralympic Team, in addition I guess to the work we do directly with high performance managers we started to actually send out people over to international events and offer our services just if they need extra people on the team so for instance I was an assistant Team Manager to the Australian Paralympic Athletes team at the London world championships and that was amazing for me because it’s something I’ve never had access to those athletes in between games time and it means when I get to the games in 2020 I have a real understanding of how that team works, what athletes are within that team and how we need to best service them when it comes to 2020.
We also get the sports together six-monthly in the lead-up to the Games and create that mob culture within the coaches, the officials, the classifiers, the performance service staff. It’s really important to get them across the board as well. It’s been a highly successful thing for us and we really hope that the outcome of that will be a really united, cohesive team when we come to Tokyo in 2020.
Thank you so much for your time.