Lessons on mental resilience and overcoming barriers with Elise Kellond-Knight.

by Elise Kellond-Knight

My name is Elise Kellond-Knight and I’m one of Australia’s most capped football players, having played over 100 times for my country and participated in three World Cups and an Olympic Games. At 30 years of age with an international career that has spanned the globe, I’ve experienced most things sport can offer. From serious long-term injuries; to living abroad for countless years; to navigating difficult club environments; to being a female athlete where it appears barriers exist for the sake of existing. My playing career has hardened me into a person who can deal with extreme adversity. There have been a number of times where I have felt my back was against the wall, but with the resilience and determination I have developed, I have always managed positive outcomes.

There are silver linings in most situations, and you must discover ways to unlock them. Throughout my 13-year professional playing career, I’ve learnt a few key lessons and I’d like to take the opportunity to share them with you.

Practice gratitude

If there’s one thing that the last 12 months of my life have taught me, it’s that things can always get worse. Perhaps it’s due to the snowball effect where one moment of negativity turns into another and so on and so forth. Last year in 2019, I found myself caught in this long, relentless pattern of unfortunate situations. It was like a dark cloud that followed me everywhere and appeared to ruin everything I tried to do. It resulted in me not playing football for most of the year, being forced to move across America away from a hostile club situation, five muscle injuries, a failed World Cup campaign, career uncertainty causing mental health stress and now just recently, an ACL injury which will require 9-12 months of rehab.

In total, this negative snowball has cost me two years of my playing career. At the time, I had no idea that the initial adverse situation would result in these catastrophic events that have deeply hampered my career. Initially, when each adverse situation would present, I would get frustrated and think; why me? Why do these things keep happening to me? When will things improve? They never did. Instead, it went from bad to worse. I had to adapt my thinking and not hope for luck or a better situation. I needed to be grateful for what I had and to stop worrying about the negative things that were occurring to me and around me.

I began to wake up each day and say three things I was grateful for. This warm cup of coffee, living with my loving family and the opportunity to improve myself. Repeat. A sunny day, support from my teammates and enough money to buy my dinner. Repeat. A youthful body with energy, an online library full of books to read and a trusted process to get fit again. This mental trick enabled me to get through the day during the toughest times; such as when I learnt my hamstring tendon injury had been misdiagnosed and I’d be spending another 12 weeks in rehab, missing most of the season. The news came after already completing 12 weeks of rehab involving two episodes of re-injury. At this moment, I wondered if I’d play football again and thoughts of retirement began to encroach. Practicing gratitude each day gave me the mental capacity to be the best person I could be, during an extremely difficult period of my life.

Turning it on its head, a path to positivity

Something that I’m proud of, is the fact that I was able to turn my most recent moment of adversity into one of great opportunity and achievement. After moving to Sweden in March, just as the Australian border closed due to COVID, I spent four months training for the commencement of a season that potentially would not commence. I’d done the hard work to get back fit and ready to play, but due to COVID, there was now no opportunity to play. In the last week of June, we finally got the go ahead to start the season but then in the second round of the Damallsvenskan, the unthinkable occurred. I ruptured my ACL. This was the cherry on the cake for me.

For anyone who believes in a greater God, you’d have to agree that he/she prefers me not to play football. This time around, I didn’t waste a moment with feelings of doubt, worry, concern, sadness, insecurity or hopelessness. Within a few days of the injury, I had accepted the severity of it and knew I would be on the sideline for a considerable amount of time. In the back of my mind I had contemplated retirement just six months ago whilst rehabbing from a reoccurring hamstring tendon injury. However, this time I pushed these thoughts aside. I knew that I would be able to overcome this injury after the pile of S^&* I had already climbed through over the last 12-15 months. It was just another hurdle I had to jump over. It had happened, I knew the process to recovery and I made a plan to best use this time.

I enrolled into University immediately and was accepted to start that week. I’m now fully immersed in an MBA and working part time with Seven Consulting, whilst rehabbing my knee. This latest serious injury gave me the opportunity to improve and gain experience in other areas of my life. I didn’t waste time thinking what I couldn’t do anymore, instead I invested energy into thinking what could now be done. I saw the lemonade from the lemons and wasted no time in putting a plan into action. There was no space to be upset or negative about the circumstances. I was simply on a new path and making the most out of it.

Ensuring happiness and finding purpose

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt through my career is to always ensure you find purpose and fulfilment in what you’re doing, because that will directly relate to your happiness. At times of extreme adversity, I questioned what I was doing and why I was dedicating so much of my life to a career that was acting so unkind and presenting so many closed doors. Mental health is something each individual must take self-responsibility for. It is one of the most important aspects of life and without a balanced head space, you aren’t able to outwardly project and create positivity. Giving and projecting is the best way to improve the environment around you.

Poor mental health can force a person to turn internally and begin to victimise themself, potentially initiating the dreaded negative snowball effect. It is so vital to find ways to condition and protect your mental health. My favourite trick is to get into nature. This is dependent on where I live but my favourite place is the beach. When I’m living in Europe, I also make use of the parks and forests. Being in a natural environment with clean air and space has a calming effect. It also causes me to slow down and take the time to breathe and self-reflect.

When I can step back and see the bigger picture, it gives me clarity to what is happening and allows me to process my purpose.

Being adaptable

If COVID has taught us all anything, it’s the ability to scrunch up your paper and start again. The key to resilience is being adaptable. How you cope and then react to adversity will ultimately define your outcome. The fact is, no one can predict what will happen tomorrow. It’s great to have plans and great to be organised but there must be an acceptance of the unpredictable nature of life. How well you cope with the unexpected, will determine how happy and successful you are in the long term. During the tough times I was experiencing last year, my Mum wrote a quote in my room which I really admired. “You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust the sails’.

It’s easy to be great when things go to plan, but the real challenge appears when adversity strikes. How well can you solve problems and reset your goals? A great example has been the recent rescheduling of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. Athletes were set on a path to compete in August this year but now have to redirect and navigate a challenging training environment to prepare for Tokyo 2021. The most adaptable athletes are going to be the most successful come August next year. There is no set path your life is destined to take. It is more of an adventure with ups, downs, twists and turns. Buckle up. I think this is a lesson we have all learnt in 2020.

Support is key

The network around you will play a key role in overcoming adversity. No one should be asked to go through difficult times alone.

There were moments in the last year where I questioned whether I wanted or should continue to play professional sport but with the support of my network, they talked sense into my feelings. Outer perspectives and words of encouragement cannot go undervalued. No doubt there will be days where you won’t see the point or where things appear overwhelming, but this is the exact moment that your support network must kick in. It’s impossible to expect someone to be at 100% all the time. The journey of overcoming adversity is a rollercoaster, hence why it’s adversity in the first place. It’s vital that there is support to pick you up after the occasional free fall drop, where you’re in the valley, waiting to see if the next move is an upward or downward trajectory.

One regret I have is not asking for professional help earlier in my journey through adversity. It’s okay to reach out and ask for help. There are trained professionals waiting to help you get back on track or find a new path. My piece of advice is to use these professionals and also those in your close network, don’t be afraid to lean on them in times of need.

Over the last 18 months I have experienced more challenges as a person, than I have in my entire career collectively. In a way, I’m thankful for the experience’s life has thrown my way as it’s allowed me to grow as a person. Now entering my 30s, I feel like I have a toolset that will equip me to overcome barriers throughout the rest of my life. If one thing is for sure, the success that is still to come in my football career will taste even sweeter after enduring the last two years.

Victory is certainly more satisfying when you’ve completely invested in and fought hard to achieve your goals.