Book Review: Wired to Play
In August this year Gayelene Clews, a former top Australian middle distance runner and internationally competitive triathlete, launched a book entitled Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete. The range of elite athletes, coaches, sports administrators and scientists who attended the launch agreed that Wired to Play provided something that was greatly needed – a valuable aid to understanding and dealing with the mental health challenges faced by athletes.
Gayelene Clews won the 1985 United States Triathlon Series. But shortly afterwards, struggling to cope with the mental and physical fatigue she felt as an elite triathlete, she abruptly stopped competing. Instead she started writing and studied sports psychology. Armed with a Masters Degree she returned to Canberra and began working with the ACT Academy of Sport, the national rugby league, rugby union, and cricket teams, as well as respective Australian Olympic teams including the gold medal winning Women’s Water Polo team and a range of other elite athletes. In 1996, triathlete Jackie Gallagher says she had a session with Clews, frustrated at consistently finishing second in peak Australian and international triathlons. Later that year, armed with metacognitive strategies for dealing with the pressure arising from her own high hopes and expectations, Gallagher won the ITU Triathlon World Championships, and three weeks later achieved a world first by also taking out the ITU Duathlon World Championships.* Clews brings to this book firsthand experience as an athlete, coach and a psychologist, as well as a wealth of knowledge about the mental health challenges that athletes can and do encounter.
As the book’s title suggests, Clews’ primary goal is to help athletes – as well as their coaches, mentors, teachers, parents, and supporters – to develop the capacity for metacognition, which she presents as the key to ‘mind wealth’. Metacognition is the term psychologists use to refer to an individual’s capacity to reflect on how she or he thinks, feels, acts and reacts. Metacognitive individuals recognize that their upbringing, and/or the environment in which they live, informs their values and shapes their ideas and bias. They are able to separate their own bias from truth or fact, to contemplate more helpful ways of doing things, building self-awareness and self-regulation.
But Wired to Play is not about metacognition as such. Rather it is about the metacognitive strategies that can assist athletes and their network of supporters to cope with mental health challenges as they relate to sport. Clews uses individual case studies to outline a different type of mental health challenge. She explains what the scientific community knows about the subject and how it ‘plays out in sport’. This helps to demystify the subject. In the second half of each chapter, Clews systematically identifies factors that may put individuals at risk and offers a range of specific strategies for mitigating risk. Underpinning those strategies is the notion of metacognition, self-awareness and the willingness to address the mental health challenge in question.
Wired to Play addresses ten categories of mental health challenge that may impact athletes. Some challenges are neurochemical in nature, others cultural and contextual, while yet others relate to life changes. Clews provides metacognitive strategies for dealing with anxiety and depression. She offers mechanisms to help coaches, mentors and sports administrators dealing with athletes who are bipolar, who ‘self-medicate with alcohol’, or struggle with anger. Demonstrating how metacognition can reframe real life challenges, Clews nicely casts ADHD sufferers as the ‘differently gifted’, with particular strengths in sport. She considers specific contextual factors that may result in a variety of disorders and impact on athlete mental health, such as pressures relating to body image, and the challenges posed by social media, computer gaming and other technologies. Finally she addresses the challenges that arise from aging, grief, loss and athletic retirement.
Wired to Play draws on a rich range of personal accounts of mental health challenges witnessed or experienced by elite athletes and coaches. Some were shared, with consent, in interviews with Clews, while others had been previously shared in published autobiographies or during television and radio appearances. Clews honours the courage shown by athletes like Anthony Mundine, Jana Pittman, Ian Thorpe and many others, by making sense out of their stories and translating them into constructive lessons about metacognition.
Yet, at the same time, this is not a book solely for and about elite athletes and their coaches. It is useful for anyone who takes sport seriously. It is easy to read the tables identifying anxiety-inducing patterns of thought and recognise that you tend to be a perfectionist or overly self-critical. But there are tips for the reader, for athletes and their coaches on how to reframe those thoughts in a helpful manner, on how to ‘think metacognitively’. In addition, the book includes the experiences of everyday athletes alongside those of elite athletes. Thus the story of a junior triathlete, who took a swim course misdirection as an opportunity for an extra tough ‘hit out’, follows shortly after a discussion of Ian Thorpe’s experience of stress and burnout. Using Thorpe’s example to introduce and normalize the notion of burnout, Clews expands on a range of contributing factors, including ‘anxious worrying’. The young triathlete in question demonstrated ‘a high level of metacognition’, when he reframed the situation as a training opportunity, while another less metacognitive athlete struggled to accept the consequences of the misdirection in terms of the race outcome and his career, with ongoing impacts on his performances and mental health. Through Wired to Play, Clews seeks to help coaches and athletes to develop the sort of cognitive resilience and flexibility demonstrated by the opportunist, and minimise tendencies towards anxious worrying.
While Clews packs a great deal into this book, there is scope for much more research in the field of athlete mental health. The elite turn out at the Wired to Play book launch clearly signals the level of current interest in the subject. This book thus does not present the final word on the subject. One of the athletes that Clews mentions in her book is Jackie Fairweather (nee Gallagher) whose struggle with depression remained unknown to many. Her unexpected passing on 2 November 2014 shocked the international triathlon and national sporting communities. In recognition of both her legacy and her struggle the Jackie Fairweather Research Fund for Sport and Mental Health was established. Clews, fittingly, has volunteered to donate 20% of all triathlon sales of Wired to Play to the Research Fund. At two levels, her book will thus help to create a new legacy of metacognitive knowledge and mind wealth.
About the book:
Gayelene Clews Wired to Play: the Metacognitive Athlete retails at AU$49.99 and can be purchased online at: www.wiredtoplay.com. To ensure that 20% of your payment goes to the Jackie Fairweather Research Fund, type in ‘triathlon’ in the ‘additional information’ box at the check out page.
Reviewer bio: Dr Jane E. Hunt is an Assistant Professor at Bond University. She lectures in Australian Studies and in 2014 published Multisport Dreaming: the Foundations of Triathlon in Australia.
* Information and quotes are drawn from Wired to Play as well as research conducted for Jane E. Hunt, Multisport Dreaming: the Foundations of Triathlon in Australia.