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Mental Health Matters – Understanding the Importance of Mental Health in Sports
Happy to see your beaming faces on my blog again.
In today’s post, I want to talk about a subject very important to me: mental health in sports. This one is a long one, so grab a cup of coffee and settle in. Thank you for spending a few minutes with me.
You already know, I’m a huge advocate for mental health awareness. It started when I was young, but it really exploded into a passion when I was researching mental health in 2010 while working at my old job and learned that most disability claims in federally regulated workplaces were because of depression. This may have been an office setting, but since sports are my other passion, I really connected the two. Then I recognized the impact of my own mental health in every chapter of my life. HA! Hindsight is 2020 right? That’s okay. I couldn’t know what I didn’t know.
I see many of my clients, teammates, and colleagues struggling to cope with societal pressures, dealing with shame, navigating personal challenges, and trying to do it all on their own.
And I worry.
Although mental health affects so many people, we don’t talk about it openly and sometimes downplay it or completely avoid it. I’m fine, you know, just tired – it’s just been really busy.
But there’s more to it than that.
Maybe you’re suffering from a mental health illness and can benefit from chatting with a mental health professional who may be able to help you with a diagnosis and specific tools.
Maybe it’s not a specific diagnosis or illness and instead, poor mental health; they’re not the same thing. “Mental health isn’t simply the absence of mental illness and living with a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t have good mental health.” (Canadian Mental Health Association)
Or maybe you need support from your teammates, coaches, peers, and network. We, including me and you can feel empathy for one another, talk openly without prejudice, and cultivate a supportive community.
I don’t want you to power through struggles and wake up one day with your mental health like:
I’ve been there. It’s been more of a nagging constant than a surprise. It eats away and makes me question everything. But on the flip side, it’s also my super power. I’m passionately curious about being my best self for me and for my clients and community, especially regarding nutrition and fitness.
Obviously, nutrition and fitness are huge components of athletes’ lives, but they can also be misused or misapplied by individuals and coaches, too. This topic comes up a lot in my chats about disordered eating, relationship with food, and morality around food. Body dysmorphia, exercising as punishment, and restrictive or binge eating are more common than you may realize.
Athletes may look like, sound like and be strong and capable, but that doesn’t make them machines. “No one is immune, including athletes. Despite being perceived as physically fit, active and healthy, athletes can suffer just as much as everyone else from mental health problems.”(Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)
We are strong human beings, but it shouldn’t be about how much load we can carry or how much we can hustle before we finally crack. No, it’s not willpower and no, it’s not about trying harder.
Hold on a second! I’m going to quote one of the best sports movies of all time. I’ll fight you if you disagree **wink***
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you!” – Rocky
As much as this fires me up, especially in the few minutes of pre game solitude with big headphones, I have to wonder – what does winning long term look like? There’s persistence, perseverance, and mental toughness, which are necessary for performance. But, at which point does this cross over to poor mental health?
We can’t improve our mental health if we pretend we’re unbothered and unaffected. If we think asking for help is a sign of weakness or cowardice. Or, if we continue to be closed off, not share our feelings with others or learn to ask for what we need. We also can’t improve mental health if the culture of our teams, organizations, and communities doesn’t prioritize introspection, feedback, education, and training. It’s a me, you, and all of us issue.
Fitness and sports can reduce mental stress but they can also create it. Athletes and coaches may encounter many emotional and mental stressors that challenge even the most passionate and gifted individual. This can impact overall performance on and off the field, on and off the mat, in and out of the gym. These stressors may include physical injuries, pressure to perform, racism, sexism, and a global pandemic.
Just as fitness is more than physical health, athletes are more than just athletes—coaches are more than coaches. They are human beings with insecurities, challenges, fears, stresses, passions, hobbies, commitments, school or work obligations, friendships and relationships. Many athletes, including myself, have tied our identity to our sports. Who are you without athletic talent or this record or this medal or this routine? What happens if you step away from the sport? What happens if an injury takes you out? Who are you?
Shit, that’s heavy eh?
But it goes back to the point I made earlier about us not being machines. We can feel confident in our training, but if we enter a competitive environment and for whatever reason we have an off day or something happens, then we may start questioning our capabilities and shut down or suffer other consequences.
I’m the absolute queen of this! 💁👑
But pressure makes diamonds, they say. True, I’m a fucking diamond, but I’ve recently learned how to better handle pressure and manage my anxiety after working with professionals, gaining clarity of my triggers and needs, and finding the most appropriate tools for me. 💎 I’m a big advocate for holding boundaries, talk therapy, mindfulness, active meditation, and deep breathing. But these may or may not be appropriate for you.
I hope more athletes and coaches gain the support they need because this isn’t the reality right now. Reality checks from the Canadian Centre of Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS):
I had the privilege of chatting about mental health in rugby with a couple of my former teammates and amazing humans last month as part of a wellness chat series I’ve been hosting online with my rugby club, Ottawa Beavers Banshees RFC. Huge shout out to Natasha Watcham-Roy (Rugby Olympian) and Leandra Carino (Carino Counselling). We discussed the reality checks above, and compiled action items to take as individuals and to explore as a community. It takes all of us to change culture. I don’t have all of the answers, but writing this out and you reading this may be a good place to start.
Reading and having more conversations may be a good place to start, but there is still a lot of stigma.
“When athletes are physically injured, they are treated by a team of health care professionals to ensure fast and healthy recovery. When they suffer from a mental health problem however, they are likely to suffer in silence and isolation. While sport psychology is gaining in traction, the stigma attached to mental illness is predominant in the athlete world due to the emphasis on appearing physically and mentally fit. The latter can perpetuate silent suffering and self-isolation.”(Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)
Athletes are sometimes expected to push through mental health issues and pretend to be an epitome of perfect health when the reality is shame and struggle.
It’s horrifying. But we can rise together.
Let’s be honest, open, and authentic. Let’s rise against our society’s expectations of perfection. Stigma is a monster that affects us all, so let’s come together for the greater good. Invite friends, coworkers, and teammates to the conversation so we can improve our collective mental health through supporting one another.
Once we have a brave space to openly discuss our struggles, we can learn about more tools and resources. We may rediscover the magic that’s been buried underneath stresses, pain, and confusion. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary – healing isn’t linear and there isn’t one approach that works for everyone.
I can admit that I was all over the place these last few months. The start and stop, continuous loops of this past year halted my motivation and deteriorated my mental health.
YOU KNOW ME! I’m an extrovert, wanderlust, active, curious person who seeks community, adventure, and enjoys change.
So when faced with a never-ending lockdown, I found myself asking, “Why aren’t you exercising, you stupid moron? You’re the heaviest and most out of shape you’ve ever been!”
It wasn’t until I realized I was trying to set unrealistic expectations for myself to be perfect for both me and my clients that I realized I had to stop and pivot.
I realized I needed to work on my resilience. And here’s what I learned from my practice:
Working on building my resilience allowed me to persevere so I can be of even greater help to my community. I evaluated my setbacks constructively, which allowed me to have more self-compassion. I strengthened my growth mindset with the support of an amazing network and circle of trust.
– Sports and fitness go beyond physical health. To reach peak performance, we need to prioritize mental and emotional health, too.
– We need authentic conversations to reduce stigma, especially for athletes and coaches who suffer like everyone else
– On an individual level, we can self-reflect, take ownership of the factors that contribute to good mental health, create a mental health plan, and also develop mental toughness and resilience
As always, I’m here to support you. I’m not a mental health professional, but if you feel called to contact me, please do. I’m happy to listen or connect you with someone who may be a better help. Here are some resources for your consideration:
This pandemic in particular took a huge toll on mental health as “one in five Canadians screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder.” (StatCan) And sadly, much more, including isolation, burnout, lack of activity, emotional eating, and substance abuse. Athletes of all levels from amateur, junior, high school, college, university, competitive club, and to professional have been affected. I don’t know if we have yet fully grasped the consequences of this pandemic on the future of sport. But I’m hopeful, and I believe in the power of teamwork, unity, and coming together.
Okay, that’s enough, for now. Thank you for reading, and for continuing this discussion. Until next time!
You’re human, a badass, and I believe in you! 💪