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How Rugby gave me purpose again with Cameron Carr

Cameron Carr has represented Australia in Wheelchair Rugby in 187 games. He has been to 3 Paralympic Games and 2 World Championships. But before Wheelchair Rugby Cam was playing a Queensland under-19s curtain raiser to the State of Origin and scouted to join the Sydney Roosters. Cam signed with the club but before he started he was involved in a motor vehicle accident and experienced a spinal cord injury. Cam chats to us about his love of sport and how rugby helped him get through the injury and also foster his passion for the cognitive side of performance.

The beginning

Growing up, how important was sport to you?

It was a big part of my life. Being young and living in Queensland we were always outdoors. We didn’t have iPads back then, so sport was a huge part of my life.

Your father, Norm Carr represented QLD in Rugby League. Did he impact your choice of sport when you were growing up?

There was an impact, maybe it was genetic. He never forced me to play Rugby League, it was a choice that I made and wanted to pursue. I think he stopped playing when I was nine. It just became the norm watching him play, we would go to the footy field on a Sunday arvo, go into the sheds after the game. For me it was normal, I guess it is the same as someone growing up with a father as a carpenter or a doctor.

**Did your Dad help you in your game? **

Dad was really good. He never berated me, he wasn’t one of those parents. In junior years you get so many different coaches and they all have an impact in some way.

You were lucky enough to represent QLD U/19’s in Rugby League and you had signed with the Roosters. Playing sport was a huge part of your life, you were then in a major car accident, which stopped you from playing the sport that you loved. Tell us about how sport helped your recovery?

When you have a spinal cord injury they don’t give you a handbook that you can sit down with your family and friends and understand the things you are going to deal with.

[After the accident] I went home and tried to live the life I was living before and it was difficult. It wasn’t until I went down to the AIS and surrounded myself with guys similar to me and dealing with the same issues that I could talk through it and realise it’s not that bad.

Wheelchair Rugby and representing the Aussie Steelers

Getting involved with Wheelchair Rugby, how did that impact your life?

I suppose growing up I was defined by sport and felt that sport was a part of who I was and that was a huge part of my identity and I sort of lost that after the accident. So going back to sport gave me a purpose and some of that identity back.

When did you go from using Wheelchair Rugby as a way to be active to this could actually be a professional career?

It was a slow burn. I started playing just before Athens Paralympic Games and when I started seeing guys that I was playing with locally, who were representing QLD and Australia and were getting ready for the Athens Paralympic Games. The fact they were travelling around the world and doing all of these amazing things, I thought that actually seems alright and it was something that I could do and take an interest in.

What was the catalyst for you to actually want to take your sport to the next level?

It was when I was identified and started climbing the ladder and making different teams. I went to my first Aussie Steelers camp three months after I had started playing. They just took me down and showed me around. I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Just seeing guys in that elite level and that sporting environment really triggered it for me. I thought this could be fun!

It was probably adapting my mindset, I wanted to play professional sport before, that was cut short and this was another alternative to doing it.

Going down to the AIS and seeing the professionalism that these guys had. Did it surprise you how much they trained?

No, to be honest when I first went down, the team was totally different back then. I thought they weren’t training as much as they should’ve been and their performances were showing that.

I was in the team for a couple of years and there were a core group of us that thought you know what it’s fun travelling, but it isn’t fun losing, so we need to be putting in effort like the other teams are and it will be a whole lot more fun when we are winning.

There were a group of guys that had the same mindset, there was no written agreement. We sort of just wanted to achieve more, we won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Beijing and that is when we went from being haphazard to training 6 days a week and we are getting professional about it. We were doing multiple sessions a day, as you might of had QLD training and national training on the same day. It was a little bit tiring there for a while.

Were you all based at the AIS?

No, we were from all over the country, there ended up being two hubs. One in Brisbane and the other in Melbourne. We had camps where we all came together, maybe every 6 weeks. It is like all nationals teams, there aren’t too many teams that are training and playing together all the time. It is just one of the hurdles you have to deal with, every nation is dealing with it. Unless, you were somewhere like Belgium, they had 10 players and they were all in the same city.

What did your training encompass?

It is like any training program, except it is all upper body stuff. You are in the gym 3 times a week and the rest you are at a court doing conditioning and skills work. I enjoyed it, that is a big part of it, you need to enjoy what you are doing, otherwise it is going to be a drag.

Before getting into wheelchair Rugby, did you try other sports?

No, I didn’t. Wheelchair Rugby was the one that appealed to me. Wheelchair Rugby has guys that have similar level of injuries to me, so that was a part of the reason I went down that path and you can hit people. It’s the only sport you are officially allowed to hit people (with your chair) in Wheelchair Sports.

Influential Coaches and Mentors

Who are the coaches who have had the most impact on you?

In Wheelchair Rugby, I had one coach the whole time. Brad would be the main coach. He was a constant, it was difficult because he used to be a player and he was younger than most of the guys. So he transitioned from being a teammate to being a coach, it took him a little while to get the reigns. He is still the coach and started coaching back in 2007 and we have been going pretty well with him as coach, so there is no reason to change.

You talk a lot about the cognitive side of performance. Why is this so important to you?

When you look at sport or life in general. The brain is the one that dictates you, if you don’t have that right, it will be hard to be successful. I started looking at it as a performance side of things. You look at teams and individuals that go to big events and they dominate and then they stumble, I just wonder why that happens, what changes that you can’t get over that last hurdle. For me, that’s when I realised there is something more to this, you can go to the gym or to the court and get as fit and strong as possible, but if you aren’t right between the ears, you are going to struggle at some point. Mental health is a huge thing in sport and even coming to terms with a bad performance and putting that behind you to focus on the next event.

I am just about finished my uni degrees, I started a long time ago. I did a double degree in Exercise Science and Psychology, I thought they were interesting and they aligned with my values.

Post-uni is that the area you want to go in, working on the cognitive side of performance?

Yeah, I think so. I really enjoy that side of it and the perception of people; how they perceive themselves and other people. Also, how they go into a race or an event.

Is there a moment where you have experienced a mindset shift?

With the Steelers, we always were finishing 2nd to the U.S, we got the break through Gold Medal in 2012 and then went to win the next three. A Paralympic Games and a World Champs back to back. It breeds confidence and you realise that you can do it.

At PlayBook, we are passionate about mentors. What are your thoughts on mentors and do you think it is important?

Mentors are important. You need a sounding board and someone you can talk things through with. Whether that is formal or an informal way, I’m sure people don’t even realise they have a mentor, when it is just an informal chat. They are hugely important. I know the mindset of males is shifting slowly, we realise we can’t get through everything by ourselves. We get another view point on things.

Did you have a mentor?

There were a number of guys within the team that I could speak to about different things. They might not even be playing state level Wheelchair Rugby, it is just someone you can have a chat with about any life issue and also have a laugh with when times are tough.

What made you want to get on board PlayBook?

When Dave (Shillington) asked me if I was interested I went away and looked at the concept and the idea, I thought it was a really good format for me. It gives me the chance to be involved in someones journey even if it is only a tiny part of it. I get to see them grow and evolve and start achieving their goals and outcomes, whatever they might be.

When you first started out, you didn’t really have anyone to guide you. Is that something you want to do, help guide people?

Yeah, I am involved with a mentoring program with Icare Insurance. It is helping newly injured patients. I wished I had someone like that to give me some guidance instead of just doing trial and error. Which was a lot of error. It would of been awesome.

You have two Uni degrees and 3 children. When you were training and studying, how did you fit it all in?

That’s why I am no longer playing! My wife is very supportive and patient. She understood what I wanted to achieve and what drove me. It is hard, you need to prioritise. Unfortunately, it just got too much, we were living interstate and we were renovating at the same time. The girls were born when I went to Rio, when three kids hit, it changes the dynamic of everything. I had a great run with the national team, I had achieved everything I wanted to.

Do you miss playing now?

I have just been too busy to miss it yet. The big test will be the Paralympic Games, they are huge. That is when Paralympic sports are in the spotlight, at the moment it is out in the wilderness.

In 2014, you were awarded the OAM for your services to sport. What did this mean to you?

It was a huge honour. To be recognised outside of your sport for your contribution. On the same hand, it was a bit surreal. It was little embarrassing, I was up there with people who had been volunteering for 50 years, people who had gone to war so I felt as though I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t knock it back though. It is somewhere in the cupboard with the other medals.

Train with Cameron

Feature image by Beau Greenway for IPC