The Paralympics in Japan have begun and what better way to honour the event, than by talking with one of our Aussie greats - Alistair Donohoe. Alistair, an Australian Paralympian and cycling champion, shares his mental health insights around training, competing, and living as an elite athlete.
Alistair, are you able to give us some background on your career? Did you always want to be an athlete?
When I was growing up there wasn’t a time when I wasn’t playing sport. I was about 12-13 years old when I fell in love with cycling and 16 years old when I decided I wanted to do it as a career (I even asked mum if I could drop out of school after year 11).
I listened to some sound parental advice and finished high school but went straight from that to racing full time. I was around 19 when I started to see success in my cycling while racing with the Australian team in the U23 age category.
I also started competing with the Australian Para-cycling team which saw me win my first Road World Championship in 2014 and set my sights for the 2016 Rio Paralympics. I currently have 8 World Championship titles and 2 Paralympic Silver medals to my name heading into Tokyo this year.
How has sport and a sporting community helped you and your mental health?
Sport has been key to my mental health - I do a lot of thinking, processing, and dealing with mental health niggles on the bike. I find when I’m riding through the mountains on my own it gives me a clear head and an opportunity to vent if needed.
The cycling community around me is also so incredibly tight - my teammates are key, as I get the chance to spend hours and hours with friends talking about the highs and lows of life and sport. It creates a bond that makes you feel so comfortable sharing openly and that’s the golden ticket right there.
How did you prepare yourself mentally for the Games and can you give some advice on how you coped with the results?
The games are a challenging beast to prepare for. This year I have changed a lot and worked very closely with my sports psychologist about being as cool, calm, collected and happy as possible. I intentionally try to minimise as much stress as I can in all aspects of life and sport. I trust in my preparation and aim to not be too focused and switched on all the time.
In 2016, leading up to the Rio Games, I bore a lot of the pressure in my own head and had a lot of weight on my shoulders. To help alleviate this, I found tapping my support network helped me focus on the main things that I needed to. I spend a lot of time being as social as possible with my close friends and family to keep that positive mindset, because I know that the happier I am, the faster I race.
I surprisingly find dealing with the results, good or bad, to be the easy part of the sport. As disappointed as I can get if I don’t get the outcome I trained for, I accept it if I know I’ve given it all out on the road. If I do find my emotions are too much, I vent it out in a huge training session and use it as motivation to come back stronger the next time around.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far? How did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced so far would be in the 2016 Rio Paralympics Road Race when I was robbed of the gold medal by my opponent and rival when he pushed me into the barriers as I was sprinting passed him in the final 200m of the 100km race. We both crashed as a result, and being so close to the line I crossed it by foot. Unfortunately, because my bike was still on the other side of the line, I wasn't awarded the gold medal and instead got 5th.
It was a lot to process, and it instantly gave me fire in the belly to go to Tokyo 2020 for redemption. I've used that incident to push me to become a better athlete but at times it has pushed me too far and made me sick or injured as a result. It has taken a lot of work psychologically to really process that incident and make it right.
Why do you believe mental health is so important? And how do you prioritise it?
I’ve learnt through my experience - ups and downs, to know that the mind is the most important part of the body without it I couldn't do what I do. I view mental health like a muscle, sometimes it's working perfectly, sometimes it feels like it has a niggle and needs a stretch, and sometimes it's injured and needs more serious attention. This view really helps me break down the stigma of mental health challenges especially in a sporting arena and normalise not being okay all the time.
I try to be as proactive with my mental health as possible, and I talk to my family and friends as openly and as often as I can. I know that when I suppress and ignore my problems they build up and fester and usually come boiling over when my body is under the most stress. As much as I prioritise my own mental health, I try my hardest to always check in on my mates to see how they are going. When a mate is struggling with their mental health, it can sometimes hide in plain sight and I know that checking in on my loved ones has had a huge impact on people close to my heart.
Movember’s Ahead of the Game program teaches young athletes the skills and knowledge that underpin good mental health and resilience. How important do you think resilience is for an athlete?
Resilience is one of the most important traits an athlete can have. It is never smooth sailing, and you lose far more than you win. If you don't have the resilience to bounce back from defeat, injury, sickness, or personal issues then it becomes nearly impossible to keep competing as an athlete at a professional level.
Conversations can have an impactful result, are you comfortable to share an example of this?
At the start of the year, I went on a long 5-hour ride with a friend and housemate of mine. We had known each other for a while but hadn’t spent much one-on-one time together. The conversation flowed and somehow, I was talking about my struggles with eating and overcoming an eating disorder, which is quite a common issue with endurance athletes. My friend then opened up about his 10-year struggle with an eating disorder and shared his journey. A lot of his story was about his childhood, family upbringing and his battle with depression and relationships.
That day of talking and sharing really brought us closer as friends and made me so much more aware of him.It made me able to be a better friend to him and I would check in on him regularly, support him where needed and leave him be when needed also.
Sadly, my dear friend lost his battle with depression and took his own life this July. The memories of our chats will last with me forever. He opened up to me and I was able to talk to someone who really understood what I was going through first-hand, and this cemented our bond. His tragic end only makes me want to do more for those around me. I want to be part of the difference in preventing such a terrible thing from happening to another loved one.
Alistair’s story and commitment to Movember reminds us to stay connected with our mates and ensure we check in. A small act can go a long way and help save a man’s life.
If you’d like some further assistance on navigating a convo with a mate who may be doing it tough, Movember Conversations is a great tool to utilise. It will help give you the confidence and guidance on how to tackle those slightly trickier chats. Alternatively, if you need immediate support please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. It takes courage to speak up but be assured that you’re never alone.