Sports and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson says New Zealand sport's "win-at-all-cost" mentality is putting athletes' wellbeing at risk.
The minister added his voice to the chorus of growing concern about player welfare and wellbeing, saying we need to think about the issue "more than we have ever perhaps done".
Athletes' wellbeing and mental health has been an issue that has been long ignored in New Zealand according to athlete representative bodies like the New Zealand Athletes Federation.
Last year, NZAF boss Roger Mortimer said he believes New Zealand sport has lost its way and created an unsafe environment for some athletes.
His comments came after 23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps opened up about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts – an experience that Mortimer believes also applies to New Zealand's sporting system.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has opened up about his battles with mental health. Photo / Getty
"In my opinion, we don't have a safe environment in New Zealand in our sporting environment for everybody," Mortimer told Radio Sport last year.
"I honestly believe our system is playing Russian roulette with the welfare of young men and women."
Mortimer believes the issue is preventable and comes down to a lack of leadership in New Zealand sport.
Robertson told the Herald he believes the issue needs to be at the "forefront" and that Sport NZ, the governing body that oversees sport in New Zealand, are working closely towards changing the sporting environment.
"From my perspective as Minister of Sport I think player wellbeing and player welfare has to be at the forefront," he said.
"Through Sport New Zealand they've been taking a very close look at these issues in the context of the whole overall question around player welfare. And they are now working very closely with all of the national sporting organisations on making sure that we make that shift.
"Because I think the win-at-all-cost mentality everybody now acknowledges is not serving the players or sport well. And so that work is now underway."
High profile athletes like Paralympian Liam Malone and former Warriors fullback Kevin Locke have opened up about depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, while All Black John Kirwan has spoken about similar struggles and has been one of the most prominent voices for athletes in the mental health space.
All Black great John Kirwan is a big mental health advocate. Photo / Photosport
The issue player welfare has also been raised in reviews into cultures of bullying and intimidation within several sports in New Zealand.
The most notable example was Cycling New Zealand's Heron Report which outlined the findings from an independent review into the behaviour of former sprint coach Anthony Peden and the culture within Cycling NZ.
The report, headed by Michael Heron QC, questioned whether High Performance Sport New Zealand adequately protects the welfare of athletes across all sports and proposed a further review into how the organisation deals with these concerns. The football and hockey governing bodies have also had reviews into similar issues within their organisations.
Robertson agreed that a culture of bullying is an issue in New Zealand sport that needs to be addressed.
"Look there's no doubt that it is [an issue]," he said. "And that's what's being uncovered. And I think the reaction from most sports when they've had their reviews is that they know that there needs to be improvement.
"The general principal is that the wellbeing and welfare of athletes should be at the forefront. That people in any form of relationship in the sporting arena should be treating each other with respect."
The minister believes improving the sporting environment for athletes will be beneficial not only for their wellbeing but also for the country's sporting achievement.
"It's really important that our athletes are focused on excellence and on success. But I actually think it can become part of our recipe for success to focus more on player welfare and wellbeing. I actually think that will be a key ingredient to succeeding and excelling.
"But there is absolutely no place for bullying. Coaches will always push their athletes and that's good because that's their job. But there is a very clear line between that and bullying and there isn't a place for it."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here