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Mental health: The most important player on the court

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Learn how mental health is impacting athletes and how best to cope

Courtesy of John Fornander

Support, community and purpose are among the numerous rewards that come with being an athlete. 

Only recently have the negative aspects of athletics been exposed and fleshed out, one of the most challenging topics being mental health. 

One in five Canadians experience mental health struggles or illness, yet only one in five youth receive the appropriate resources and services. Inadequate accessibility to resources can be dangerous, especially for young athletes who must navigate mental health while shouldering the pressure to perform.

The Problem

Coupled with the expectation to succeed, exhaustive training and a lack of time to decompress, high-level female athletes, in particular, are prone to experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression. In addition, a 2017 study found that “female athletes who were anxious sustained sport-related injuries” almost two times more than those who did not experience anxiety — highlighting that the foundation for well-being begins with the mind. 

One professional athlete who is vocal about mental health is Mississauga’s Bianca Andreescu, the highest-ranked Canadian in the history of the Women’s Tennis Association and Canada’s female athlete of 2017 and 2019. 

In December 2021, Andreescu publicly stepped away from playing in the Australian Open in December 2021 to prioritize her mental health. 

Courtesy of Anna Shvets

“A lot of days, I did not feel like myself, especially while I was training and/or playing matches. I felt like I was carrying the world on my shoulders. I could not detach myself from everything that was going on off the court; I was feeling the collective sadness and turmoil around and it took its toll on me,” Andreescu told CBC in April.

In an interview, a former university athlete from Ontario, who wishes to remain unnamed, spoke about Andreescu’s contribution to the mental health conversation. She expressed how vital it is for the sports community and society in general to hold mental health as of equal importance, if not more, than physical health.

The former student-athlete expressed the pressure she experienced during her time competing as a solo athlete: The expectation to give 100 per cent at all times while being required to handle anything thrown at you with ease. 

“It felt as though once you’ve committed to being an athlete, you are expected to be able to overcome anything and everything, including the negative aspects such as struggles with mental health,” she explained.

Ontario-born mental performance coach and former university athlete, Kayla Sliz, shared her experience working as a mental performance consultant for various women’s sports teams at the collegiate level. 

She confirmed that single-sport athletes experience isolation, higher performance pressures and limited social support compared to athletes who compete in team sports. The combination of these factors results in heightened anxiety and depression levels for the individual.

Prioritizing mental health

Courtesy of Anthony Tran

How, then, can athletes, especially those who compete alone, reduce stress brought on by their athletics?

Sliz said that it is important for athletes to explore their identity outside of sport, seek support and not only prioritize but proactively continue conversations openly about all forms of rest and recovery, such as physical, mental, emotional, social and intellectual.

When asked about the impact of professional athletes choosing mental health over competition, Sliz explained how “The choices of Bianca Andreescu, Simone Biles and Leylah Fernandez to prioritize mental health over performance not only normalizes mental health but also emphasizes the importance of caring for it, the same way you would care for physical health.”

A single-sport athlete herself, Andreescu spoke in an interview with Tennis World USA about her break from tennis. 

“Working on myself more than I ever have was super important in that process because I learned how to love myself in a better way. I felt that I was basing my self-worth at times on my results and when I wouldn’t have that, it wasn’t good,” she shared.

Identity away from the sport is essential, considering there will come a time when athletes take their final lap and retire. 

When asked about retiring from her sport, our former student-athlete said “It feels like your sense of purpose has disappeared. It’s just as important to surround yourself post-sport as during, with support and safe mental health environments.”

If you or someone you know if struggling with mental health issues related to sport, consider using the resources listed below.

Mental health resources

Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez

The Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport

A registered charity supporting the mental health and performance of competitive athletes, coaches and support staff. The charity offers contact information for resources such as the Mental Health Crisis Line, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Kids Help Phone, Youthspace.ca, and more. They also offer services such as psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists, which can be submitted through provincial insurance providers. 

Living Life to the Full

An eight-week virtual course offered by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) that focuses on how understanding thoughts, feelings and behaviours work together to impact well-being. There are various courses for differing audiences including new moms, youth, adults and older adults. In addition, CMHA has an extensive list of mental health resources in Ontario.

The Ontario government has also created an online resource for mental health services and programs.

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