Releasing the pressure valve on our next James O'Connor

Supporting the next James O’Connor is the focus of a groundbreaking Australian Catholic University project into the health and wellbeing of elite student athletes.

ACU and its research partner St Joseph’s Nudgee College are collaborating on the three-year project which aims to quantify the training load and fatigue response in sporting prodigies and develop systems to fortify them for the tangle of academic, extra-curricular, social and spiritual demands they will face.

Wallabies flyhalf O’Connor’s story embodies how the high-pressure environment of the pathway to professional sport can test young minds and bodies. He launched from Nudgee as a 2007 Australian Schoolboys rugby star but took almost a decade to master the high-performance demands before achieving success as Queensland Reds’ captain. 

Stress often begins in adolescence when career decisions pile on to schoolwork, up to four weekly on-field training sessions, a gym program and representative commitments.

That is the type of physical and mental pressure that weighs so heavily on teenagers it can affect their performances on the field, in the classroom and at home.

“Everyone wants a piece of these kids – coaches, teachers, friends and, often, managers and sponsors,” said Dr Jonathon Weakley from ACU’s School of Behavioural and Health Sciences. 

“What we want to do is better understand and quantify those stresses and work on how to manage them so they can flourish academically and at sport.” 

More care is now invested in the welfare of young athletes than when a 16-year-old Jordan Rankin made his NRL debut for the Gold Coast Titans in 2008, or when Wallaby David Pocock, then 17, was blocked from making what would have been his first Super Rugby start in 2006.

Focusing only on physical markers of capacity ignores the holistic approach that PhD candidate and Nudgee College strength and conditioning coach Charles Dudley wants to take with young athletes across a range of sports.

The ultimate goal of Charles’s research is to give performance coaches a better understanding of the factors that affect performance and injury.

“You can’t just look at GPS values on a screen, otherwise you’re ignoring the full picture of how we can view and assess the stressors they are experiencing,” he said. “We’re looking at training load, gym load, relationships with their peers and families, maturation levels and exams.

“We can't always manipulate the demands placed on an athlete. Occasionally, we have to accept they operate in an environment of organised chaos. And reducing training demands may not be the answer when you're chasing high-performance.

“What we can do is understand those demands and develop their capacity to cope by building the support structures around them.”

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