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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

21 July 2022

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Pursuing psychology for player support

Working with the North Queensland Cowboys since 1994, Kevin Marty wanted to develop the skills to support players’ wellbeing both on and off the field. After studying Psychology at JCU, Kevin became the club’s Wellbeing and Education Manager.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Kevin worked as a Development Coach for the North Queensland Cowboys. It was an experience that made him want to hone his skills.

“It was after working with a young player who was particularly struggling that I really wanted to be able to help more, but I didn’t quite have the right skillset,” he says. So, in 2006, Kevin enrolled in a Bachelor of Psychology (now Bachelor of Psychological Science) at JCU with the support of the club behind him.

“I had been in that role as a Development Coach for about 13 years and then switched to my current role as a Wellbeing and Education Manager in 2009, which was during the second year of my degree,” Kevin says.

Working hard to balance his work and study, Kevin says that learning on campus was a highlight for him. “I studied part time while working and the Cowboys were really good in allowing me the flexibility to attend lectures in person,” Kevin says. “I don’t think I missed a single lecture or tutorial. I learn from listening and doing more than anything, so tutorials were a really great learning experience for me.”

Kevin says that although he didn’t go the route of becoming a registered psychologist — which requires further years of study after completing your undergraduate course — his degree gave him the skills to provide critical support to players.

“My degree taught me a lot of skills that I can use to support players’ wellbeing. This includes counselling skills, how to ask questions, and learning to listen much more than you talk,” he says. “I’m still growing that skillset to this very day.”

Kevin says that starting university as a mature aged student wasn’t always easy, but he hopes that he can be an example for others. “I come from a background where I didn’t finish year 11, so, going on to study at university as a mature age student was a big step. I tell people that 'if I can do it, so can you.'”

Training field outside the Cowboys centre in the evening with players on the field and a banner to the left that says JCU Performance Science Hub.
A person wearing a white shirt and black jacket sits at a desk writing with a pen in one hand while looking at a laptop.
Left: North Queensland Cowboys players training outside the Hutchinson Builders Centre. Supplied by JCU Marketing.

Kicking career goals

Now in his role as a Wellbeing and Education Manager, Kevin uses his background in psychology to help the players manage their wellbeing and career development.

“A lot of young players get their first NRL contract and I think ‘I’ve made it’,” Kevin says. “It takes a little longer for many players to see a life beyond the game.”

With many NRL players retiring after about a decade — some sooner, and some later — often in their early 30s, Kevin supports them  as professional rugby league players by preparing them for other career avenues. “It’s really important for us to help players land on their feet and see life outside the game,” he says.

Kevin says he helps the players to develop career plans and begin studying, and he checks in on them along the way. “We have at least 80 per cent of our players who are studying while they’re working as professional footballers. The JCU Elite Athlete program plays a really big part in this, supporting some of our players to study and play at the same time.

“The Cowboys and other clubs put a lot of money and focus into providing education and supporting study for the players,” Kevin says. “We’ve found that for those players who did other activities outside of the game, such as studying, they actually had a better performance on the field. It’s the best for everyone, including the clubs and the players, because they have an outlet.”

For those looking to pursue a career path like Kevin’s, he says that a lot of professional sporting clubs throughout Australia have similar roles to support players’ wellbeing and education.

“All of the NRL clubs in Australia have at least two people who are Wellbeing and Education Managers. Other sports such as Aussie Rules, cricket, netball, basketball and others have people in similar roles where they support player welfare.”

JCU Alumni Kevin Marty

“I often get to connect with other wellbeing managers,” Kevin says. “Talking to them, you realise there are a lot of similar circumstances for professional sportspeople; they all have to manage the pressures of winning, self-doubt, sleep and overall wellbeing.”

North Queensland Cowboys players outside the Hutchinson Builders Centre in Townsville, which is co-located with the JCU Performance Science Hub, featuring state-of-the-art equipment including a physiology laboratory and performance analytics capabilities.

Supplied by JCU Marketing.

Supporting player wellbeing

Kevin says his role also makes it a priority to look out for players’ mental and physical wellbeing.

“Societal attitudes toward mental health and talking about your mental health have massively improved over the years, and clubs like the Cowboys make sure they provide support. A lot of my work involves focusing on players’ health outside the game, which can include supporting their confidence, managing pressures as a professional sportsperson and difficult times where injuries or relocations might create added stress.

"For a lot of players, much the same as the general population, managing transitions can be difficult,” he says. “That includes entering professional football, exiting it, and also things like selections for games and even injuries.”

Kevin’s role includes supporting players’ mental health and working alongside other health practitioners in that process. “It’s an extremely physical game and it’s common for players to get injured. But we can help them to manage the mental, social and psychological stresses that go with rehabilitation and recovery.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also created new stressors. “During the COVID pandemic, players have struggled because of limited selections,” he says. “If they were selected for something like the Queensland Cup or the State of Origin, they couldn’t then go on and join other selections because of ‘bubble’ requirements around COVID safety.”

Kevin says he has a lot of discussions about intrinsic and extrinsic factors with players. “I talk a lot about situations they can and can’t control. For example, a player might not be able to control the coach’s selection, but they can control how they train and the skills they improve on,” he says.

Kevin says that his range of skills in psychology and career development sets the players up with the strategies to succeed in their careers as professional footballers, in their personal lives and even after the game has ended. “For me, it’s really great to see what the players go on to do after their football careers,” he says.

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