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Sport mom (noun, 🔊 spohrt mahm)

  1. A person who never stops doing whatever it takes to complete everything that needs to be done for their child. Period. [see also ‘supermom’ or ‘superhero’]

Parents with a child or teen involved in sport know that along with the daily responsibilities of parenting, youth sport demands time, money and a degree of emotional restraint (Hayward et al., 2017). They also know that it comes with opportunities to face new challenges, belong to a community, and have positive experiences with their kids (Wiersma & Fifer, 2008).

As a central force in many Canadian families, mothers adopt many roles to facilitate their child’s sport activities and maintain family order. While many moms embrace these roles, the time and energy required to always be a “good mom” can come at a cost to mothers’ physical and mental health.

According to Statistics Canada (2020), moms spend more time on childcare and home-related tasks than fathers. In addition, moms often sacrifice their own needs, including their own sport and exercise participation, to accommodate their child’s leisure activities (Bean et al., 2019). As a result, moms have limited time for recreation and socialization.

Stressed mom sitting at table with her daughter For example, research shows that mothers are less physically active than fathers and women who aren’t mothers (McIntyre & Rhodes, 2009). Unfortunately for mothers, a possible outcome of this reduced time for recreation is their increased likelihood to develop mental health problems (Craike et al., 2010). In fact, a review of mothers’ mental health showed that the vulnerability of being a mom, the fear of not being a good parent, and general concerns for the child’s wellbeing are common predictors of mental health problems among moms (Blegen et al., 2010). For that reason, contexts that provide moms with opportunities to validate their parenting and that are favourable for their child’s wellbeing are well-suited to target mothers’ mental health.

The question then becomes: what context offers an avenue to cost-effectively promote mothers’ mental health, while avoiding any additional time and financial costs for the mothers? With approximately 75% of Canadian youth involved in organized youth sport (Aubert et al., 2021), it’s uniquely positioned to promote mothers’ wellbeing. This article will illustrate how having children involved in youth sport can enhance sport moms’ wellbeing through opportunities to lead, socialize with others, experience pride and happiness, strengthen family ties and engage in healthy behaviours.

How being a “sport mom” can promote wellbeing

Across decades of scientific research, several gender-based roles have emerged for sport moms (Bean et al., 2014). These roles include organizing and preparing meals, driving kids to practices and competitions, laundering uniforms and purchasing new equipment, and coordinating busy schedules (Coble, 2010; Fraser-Thomas et al., 2013). Many moms also generously offer to replicate these roles for their child’s teammates and sometimes adopt managerial or coaching positions within the team. Additionally, moms provide support and encouragement during competitions and offer their feedback during the car ride home (Tamminen et al., 2017).

The roles and responsibilities that mothers assume in youth sport may appear to be stressful. However, there’s reason to be optimistic about sport as a context for improving wellbeing among moms (Sutcliffe et al., 2021). In fact, under the right circumstances, organized sport can offer several benefits to mothers (Wiersma & Fifer, 2008). These benefits include opportunities to:

Mothers do a lot for their children, families and youth sport communities. It’s time for youth sport programs to intentionally promote these outcomes for mothers.

The coaching mom

Although coaching is often viewed as a paternal role in youth sport, mothers are equally equipped to coach and serve to benefit greatly from coaching. In fact, coaching moms report feeling more enriched in life through coaching youth sport (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011). This is particularly the case when coaching moms gain additional time together with their child and their child’s teammates, foster new life skills among the team, and serve as a positive role model (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011).

Mom coaching softballCoaching allows mothers to interact and connect with their child outside of the home as well as become more familiar with their child’s friends (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011). This familiarity with the group can also provide mothers with insight and peace of mind about the type of influence the team is having on their own child. Moreover, becoming a coach can provide mothers with opportunities to foster self-esteem among child athletes (Coble, 2010). As a coaching mom reported, “This self-esteem that you see in the success that the kids get when they do well, I find that really rewarding” (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011, p. 481).

Finally, coaching moms challenge perceptions of women in sport leadership positions and represent a positive role model for their athletes. Specifically, mothers fulfilling their role as a coach can translate into youth (and possibly even the mothers’ partners and members within the sport organization) gaining positive perceptions of female leadership (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011). As a result, coaching moms have the potential to shift gender norms at an organizational level and encourage other women to volunteer for leadership positions in youth sport. Nevertheless, not every mother will be interested in volunteering for a coaching position, so it’s equally important to find ways to increase mothers’ wellbeing through sport as a spectator.

The proud, happy mom

Youth sport is particularly well-positioned for mothers to experience positive emotions from observing their child athletes’ development (Bernsten et al., 2011). From the start, registering youth in sport provides mothers with initial feelings of satisfaction and excitement in response to providing positive developmental experiences for their child (Newport et al., 2020). Then, observing their child during training sessions and competitions allows mothers to experience pride and joy from witnessing their child cooperate with others, improve their skills, and experience their own positive emotions from sport.

Group of three female sport fans cheering for a team. Wearing red and white.Emotional experiences that are both positive and recurring are fundamental to human wellbeing. Therefore, the perpetual nature of positive experiences available for mothers in sport isn’t trivial. Although a great initial focus, the positive emotions mothers experience from observing their child in sport are typically limited to training and competitions, which represents only a fraction of the youth sport experience. As such, it’s important to leverage each component of the youth sport system for mothers’ mental health, such as the social capital mothers can gain through their involvement.

The connected mom

One of the most promising avenues to promote mothers’ mental health in sport is the extra opportunities to interact with other adults (Brown, 2014). The relationship between perceived social support and positive mental health is well established. And youth sport offers mothers the opportunity to form social relationships with people they would never have met otherwise.

These relationships typically begin with friendly greetings before and after competitions but have the potential to evolve into long-lasting friendships. As an example, some sport moms become comfortable enough with other parents that they help them cope with negative emotional experiences (Neely et al., 2017). Considering that youth sport seasons often take place over several months, mothers have the time to immerse themselves in a community of sport moms and may even begin to identify with their new social group.

Women walking with a strollerSport moms may begin to perceive the sport community as a meaningful social group with which they identify (Peter, 2011). Group identities serve an important purpose in the lives of parents as they fulfil a basic human need, that is, the feeling of belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Involvement in their child’s sport team can thus provide mothers with perceptions of similarity and connectedness with other parents. And in turn, sport moms may consider the group as an important and joyous part of their life.

Developing new friendships and being part of a group are essential aspects of human wellbeing, and youth sport offers both to mothers. With everything that mothers do in and out of sport, promoting their socialization through the youth sport system should be prioritized. In the same fashion, the importance of sport on mothers’ family life is important.

The family mom

Maintaining strong relationships among all members of the family unit is important for mental health. In youth sport, mothers are provided with abundant opportunities to strengthen their relationships with their child or children.

For example, although the ongoing transportation requirements of youth sport are often considered a burden, it nonetheless provides a time for parents and children to communicate (Tamminen et al., 2017). The in-transit time gives mothers time to provide performance-related feedback and positive reinforcement. It also offers time for mothers to catch up on their child’s day and discuss topics outside of sport.

Mother, father and daughter playing volleyball in the park.Moreover, sharing positive and negative sport-related experiences can bring parents closer with their child (Clarke et al., 2016). For instance, some parents have reported that navigating deselection (being cut from a team) with their child enhanced their relationship (Neely et al., 2017). Taken together, the opportunities to communicate with their child and help regulate their emotions through difficult experiences can have a positive effect on the parent-child relationship.

Along with the parent-child relationship, youth sport may also serve as a way to improve mothers’ relationships with their partner. Relationship satisfaction among parent couples is an important predictor of mental health, and the team effort required in youth sport parenting may benefit parents in this respect (Whitton & Whisman, 2010).

Specifically, the logistical challenges of having at least 1 child athlete can burden couples, which makes it important to openly discuss goals related to their child’s involvement in sport. It’s also possible for parents to experience moments of appreciation toward each other through their engagement in youth sport. For instance, in 1 study, a mother explained, “Sometimes [my partner] skips meetings and cancels them [to watch our child’s sport], I don’t know exactly, but it makes me feel good when he comes to watch” (Dorsch et al., 2015, p. 12).

Mothers’ involvement in organized sport provides numerous opportunities to connect with family members, which is a meaningful predictor of wellbeing. Mothers’ may also experience opportunities to improve their physical health through involvement in the youth sport system.

The active mom

Despite the well-known relationship between physical and mental health, many mothers struggle to find the time for regular exercise. In fact, becoming a parent predicts lower levels of physical activity among mothers, and the rate at which mothers engage in physical activity has declined in recent decades (Archer et al., 2013; Bean & Wimbs, 2021). As such, it’s essential to create exercise opportunities for mothers where they’ll already be. Although evidence in this respect is in its infancy, youth sport may offer a viable vehicle to promote physical activity among mothers.

mom running During competitions, parents spend most of their time watching their child compete. However, many parents would agree that spectating training sessions isn’t as important. So, how can this time be leveraged for parents’ physical health? In most cases of youth sport environments, whether an outdoor field or indoor arena, there’s ample space for mothers to engage in individual or group exercise.

For example, a researcher described the regular habit of “walking the stairs” during hockey practice (Misener, 2020). In a similar way, mothers may consider walking the perimeter of the soccer field or finding an open space to organize group circuit-based exercise. Regardless of the format, sport programs and coaches should encourage optional physical activity during training sessions for parents. Youth sport should not pose a barrier on parents’ physical activity.  

How youth sport programs can promote moms’ wellbeing

Organized youth sport programs have the potential to promote mothers’ wellbeing in several ways. Here are 7 suggestions for how youth sport administrators, program leaders and families can create positive experiences and outcomes for youth sport moms:


Organized youth sport serves as a positive developmental context for countless Canadian families. Given that mothers are often the primary parent involved in preparation, transportation and support for youth sport, it’s difficult to imagine such an experience without mothers. Moving forward, it’s important not to take sport moms for granted and begin to include mothers’ wellbeing within the ideal sport experience. Although one may argue that motherhood is synonymous with selflessness, it’s time to give back to the sport moms that make it all possible. As articulated by one of the most successful athletes of all time:

“My mother is my root, my foundation. She planted the seed that I base my life on, which is the belief that the ability to achieve starts in your mind.”

– Michael Jordan


The first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation took place on September 30, 2021. This day honours the survivors of the residential school system, their families and their communities. Shortly after the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, SIRC had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sharon Anne Firth. Dr. Firth is a residential school and Indian Day School survivor. She’s also among the first Gwich’in Indigenous women, alongside her twin sister, Shirley, to compete in 4 winter Olympic Games. We spoke to Dr. Firth about the topic of mental health, her experience as an Indigenous athlete, and what truth and reconciliation mean to her. We also invited Dr. Chantale Lussier, a highly sought-after mental performance consultant, to be a part of this conversation. Drawing on our conversation, this article explores mental health considerations for Indigenous sport participants, and what those considerations mean for truth and reconciliation.

A conversation with Dr. Sharon Anne Firth (SAF)

SIRC: Tell me about how you got started in sport and what it did for your mental and physical health.

Sharon Firth headshot
Dr. Sharon Anne Firth, one of the first Gwich’in Indigenous women, alongside her twin sister, Shirley, to compete in 4 winter Olympic Games.

SAF: When my sister, Shirley, and I were first introduced to cross-country skiing in the North, we went out because it was fun and we got to meet new people, even in our community. Then it became an opportunity to travel and see the world. And both my sister and I grabbed on to it, because we came from a family of 13 and there was no way that we would ever be able to travel outside of Inuvik or the Northwest Territories.

And when we joined that sport, it taught us how to take care of ourselves, mentally and physically. It’s a sport that needs a lot of practice and imitation. And it’s important to understand why you’re doing it, what the training is all about, and what the training does for you in the long run. And when you’re in top physical condition, you feel amazing. And everything is easy and fun, and you love what you’re doing. So, it’s a healthy sport. And it’s a healthy way of keeping positive. And we really needed that.

SIRC: Why do you say that sport is something that you needed to keep healthy and positive?

SAF: You know, residential school and Indian Day School helped us in many ways, but it also destroyed us in many ways. It broke down our family unit. And some people benefited from the education, while others didn’t. I thought that I was pretty sound. I thought that I really had a strong healthy mind. But as I got older, I realized how damaged my mental health was due to the horrible, horrible, horrible beatings from the residential school and Indian Day School. And there were separations between Roman Catholic and Anglican students, and you couldn’t play with each other. The non-Indigenous people separated us and then we started finding fault in one another, whereas before we didn’t see those faults. We just saw our friends and family getting together. Even now, as Indigenous people, I think sometimes we have to work harder to be accepted. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why we have to work that hard to be accepted.

SIRC: How does it feel to be among the first Gwich’in Indigenous women, alongside your twin sister, to compete for Canada in the Winter Olympic Games?

A group of skiers competing in cross-country skiingSAF: If I go into a room, and nobody knows who I am, I deliberately don’t tell them about my career and my achievements because I want to see how I’m treated. And as soon as someone says, “Sharon’s a 4‑time Olympian,” everything changes. People look at me differently, and they treat me differently.

But not everybody’s going to make it to 4 Olympics. Not everybody’s going to be high on the podium. Not everybody’s going to get into sport. We’re not going to be good at everything. And a lot of times, I tore myself to pieces because my expectations of success were so high. When my sister and I were competing for Canada, it felt like the whole Indigenous population was on our shoulders. People watched us and because we didn’t win gold medals, maybe they thought we weren’t good enough.

So, my sister and I, we learned that, yes, we are representing our people. And it was an honour and privilege to go out there. And to always be open to talking with our people and not to push them aside, to remain humble, because they’re supporting us. And having that support from one another, our family, our communities, it helped us to achieve our potential on our own terms.

SIRC: What were some of the challenges you faced as an athlete? And how do these challenges play a role in mental health?

SAF: A lot of times when training, we didn’t have money to buy good quality food. And as poor athletes, sometimes we didn’t eat 3 square meals a day. So doing all that exercise without replacing the calories we lost, you know, it’s damaging. And it does create mental issues because you’re going to bed hungry. And I don’t know if other athletes experienced that, but I know we did.

Getting proper nutrition is a big barrier to physical and mental health for people in the North, and it can create an extra layer of stress for athletes. When we were growing up in Inuvik, all our fresh fruits and vegetables were sent up by barge and you had to eat all those foods before they went rotten. That’s less of an issue now, but food insecurity for communities in the North is still a big problem. And even down south, on the reserves there, they don’t have good water. And without clean water, you’re dead, so to speak, because then you turn to the junk food and the sugary drinks and things like that.

Another challenge is the lack of resources. In some northern communities, healthcare consists of a nursing station with 1 staff member. And that staff member might be a registered nurse or they might be a volunteer. It isn’t the same as down south. And I think the reserves are the same, they don’t have the resources.

SIRC: What can sport organizations do to support the mental wellbeing of Indigenous participants?

SAF: My sister always told me, “We love the human race.” So, let’s show it. We can’t do it ourselves; we need one another. If someone is reaching out for help, we can’t tell them to come back tomorrow and wait to see what happens. Give what you can now because who knows what tomorrow will bring?

My goal since September 30, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, has been to not discriminate against anyone and to accept everyone. For me, it’s important to be as positive as I can. And I’m not always going to be positive, I’m not going to always be happy because we aren’t perfect people. You can’t expect perfection from people because we’re all imperfect. We need to re-learn and re-teach ourselves about friendship because we all want friends.

And sports and education go hand in hand. So, with mental health issues I think it’s important to be very gentle with the information you bring forward, and how we talk to all races because Canada is a multicultural country. It’s important not to discriminate, because we’re all related in one way or another. Focus on the good that you see, not on the flaws. It’s about keeping your mind, heart and words healthy.

SIRC: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our readers?

Group of indigenous people putting their hands in during a discussion.SAF: I remember from some time back, this elderly lady told me we have to blossom where we’re planted. We’re all searching for everything in the world today, and we aren’t going to get all the right answers. And that phrase, blossom where you’re planted, it’s powerful because you have to start thinking, “this is where I’m living, so I have to make the best of it.”

And as for the word “reconciliation,” I don’t even know what that means. With truth and reconciliation, I can seriously work on the truth side. Because we all want truth. So, if we’re going to be helping, we have to be honest with ourselves, and honest with the people we’re dealing with. And sometimes it’s very frightening. It’s very frightening because you think people are going to start judging you right then and there. But we need to really focus on ourselves and what we’re offering society honestly and truthfully because people are going to make their own choice, whether it’s good or bad.

And I can’t think for anybody else. I don’t want to give something I don’t know. All I’m doing in this area is speaking from my own experience. This truth and reconciliation, it’s really confusing, and you can no longer sweep anything under the rug, because some of us don’t have rugs. So, I’m just going to end on that note of ‘we have to blossom where we’re planted.’

Insights from Dr. Chantale Lussier (CL)

SIRC: How do you think mental health is typically viewed or conceptualized in Canada?

Dr. Chantale Lussier headshot
Dr. Chantale Lussier, a mental performance consultant and the Founder and CEO of Elysian Insight.

CL: I think I’m still trying to understand and define what mental health means to me. A lot of times when we say mental health, we’re actually referring to mental illness or “dis-ease,” and I would put a little dash in the middle of that word. And what I mean by that is that we use the word mental health most often when we’re struggling, and when we’re not okay. But what does mental health look like when I’m well, or when I’m in alignment? I want to try to get away from only looking at mental health in terms of dis-ease, because even though we all struggle, I don’t think human beings are broken. And so, when we’re talking about mental health, I’m always looking for the resilience, the strength, the hope. What is it that makes us come back to life? One word that’s really important to me these days is vitality. When do I feel that life force in me? And how can I cultivate that more? And to me, that’s mental health.

And I think, especially in the Western world, and certainly in southern Canada, we tend to be very much an individualistic society. And we forget that mental health also has a collective component. Do I feel connected? Do I feel like I belong? Do I feel accepted? There are components of mental health that occur at the individual level, but I think we forget that mental health also has a social component. And when we’re thriving, it isn’t just individually, it’s also interpersonally.

SIRC: Hearing Sharon discuss some of the challenges she faced, how do you think access to necessities such as clean drinking water and adequate nutrition play a role in the mental health of Indigenous sport participants?

CL: It’s so important to hear what Sharon just talked about because there are many Canadians who don’t even have access to clean water or who struggle with food insecurities. And what do we tell athletes and coaches? Take care of your bodies. Eat healthy. And when I think of mental health, a lot of times we forget the brain is part of our bodies. So as Sharon talked about, if we aren’t even accessing, for example, good water, but we have a lot of access to pop… our blood sugar might not be consistent, our hydration levels might not feel right. And maybe our stress level is high because we don’t know what our next meal is going to be. And if we’re working in mental health fields, we can’t take for granted that 3 meals a day is the norm for everybody. We can’t take for granted that fresh fruit and vegetables are the norm for everybody. And we’ve got to really consider what’s happening at the brain health level, as well as the cognitive and emotional health of people.

SIRC: What else might we need to consider when it comes to supporting Indigenous athletes’ mental health and wellbeing?

A female athlete in a locker room dealing with mental healthCL: Mental health literacy is really important, and we’re learning it either formally or informally. We’re learning things every day through other people’s modeling of what is or isn’t important when it comes to mental health. For example, I grew up in a family that wasn’t perfect. There were some traumas in my family and some people who struggled with mental health. And I learned certain things about that. So, when we’re talking about barriers to mental health, the first thing we need to ask is: What did I learn growing up (whether it’s through sports, through school, or through my family, that either made it okay to talk about mental health, or that made it taboo)? And are there barriers to even asking for help? The things we learn in our families and in our society about addiction or trauma or grief stay with us. And the experiences that Sharon described with discrimination, residential school, breakdowns in family systems, intergenerational trauma… these are experiences that play into the mental health and wellness of many Indigenous athletes. This is where we must attend to and listen to the communities we want to help.

SIRC: How might the lens we use to approach mental health with Indigenous sport participants need to look different? What’s needed to make current approaches to mental health more inclusive?

CL: For me, there are 3 big things on my radar as a mental performance consultant that I need to continue to be attuned to and learn more about. The first is the idea that there are places and cultures that tend to be more individualistic, and there are places and cultures that tend to be more collectivist. Canada in general tends to be thought of as an individualistic society, and often Canadian approaches to mental health are viewed through an individualistic lens. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think many Indigenous people would view themselves and their communities in an individualistic way. I think right there, that’s where we’re missing the boat when it comes to helping people from diverse backgrounds and cultures in Canada. From cultures where the family and the social structure is such a vital part of identity, let alone mental health. 

NWT athletes playing doubles in badmintonSecond, I think a lot of the field of psychology has been focused on the intrapersonal. It’s been focused on the individual, and that person’s thoughts, feelings, experience and identity. And as a result, the interventions that we use to support mental health tend to be very individually focused as well. And it was only when I was exposed to couples and family systems through a counselling course that I realized mental health doesn’t have to be strictly focused on the individual. Mental health can also be looked at in terms of the couple, in terms of the family unit, in terms of a sports team. Sports teams can bolster mental health because they provide a place of belonging, connection and acceptance. But they can just as easily damage our mental health if they’re toxic, unsafe spaces. So that’s something else that’s been on my mind is that intra- versus inter-personal because as individuals, we aren’t completely disconnected from others. We live in family systems. We live in communities. We play on teams. And mental health is the stuff that happens between us, not just the stuff that happens in us.

And the third thing that’s been on my radar, and that’s been a part of my own journey as a human being, is that my training in sports psychology was extremely secular. Frankly, it wasn’t multicultural at all. And as I started to expand my own knowledge, I took a course in counseling for multiculturalism. Because it’s a multicultural world out there, and as someone who works in the areas of mental health and performance, I need to be well equipped to meet people from many different cultures. And with that, of course, comes faith. Because culture and faith, depending on where we grew up, may or may not be significant. So, when I’m working with a new client, my intake form now includes questions about culture and faith. Did they grow up practising a certain faith? And is that faith important to them? Because for some people, their spiritual life might be an intrinsic part of how they do their sport, and of how they cultivate their mental wellbeing. 

SIRC: How do truth and reconciliation play a role in your work as a mental performance consultant?

CL: I’m slowly learning about what we’ve done in Canada. About residential schools. About the truth we’re barely starting to speak of. It’s such an important thing to remember, you know, when doctors take an oath, if I’m not mistaken, part of the doctor’s oath is do no harm. And I think when it comes to mental health professions, we need come back to that first and foremost. I can have the best of intentions in my heart as a practitioner, but as Sharon said, I’m a human being and I’m not going to be perfect. I need to listen and learn before I can intervene. But that requires courage for practitioners who want to help, right? Because it’s scary. I might make mistakes. I genuinely want to help my fellow human beings, but I’m not perfect. So, I always come back to how do I ensure first and foremost that I don’t harm another human being. And how can I really listen to their stories, to their needs. Because then maybe there’ll be an opportunity for me to be of genuine help.

Hear Drs. Lussier and Firth discuss mental wellness considerations for coaches in the Sport North coaching mini-series.


If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re passionate about Canadian university sport. And why wouldn’t you be? University sport provides students with opportunities to connect and enhance their confidence through building skills. It also gives students something to look forward to that they feel good about doing. All these things can help build mental health.

But we also know that sport isn’t problem-free for student-athletes. Experiences like injuries, disappointing performances and pressure to perform each create a host of challenges that can impede mental health. These experiences can also limit an athlete’s positive experiences in sport.

Male swimmer waiting to start a raceFor example, approximately 60% of Canadian university swimmers reported having symptoms of depression (Hammond et al., 2013), and about 24% of student-athletes overall have reported levels of psychological distress that are high enough to warrant clinical intervention (Sullivan et al., 2019). We also know that about 45% of Canadian student-athletes are flourishing (Van Slingerland et al., 2018), which is about 33% lower than the general population rate of 77%, when compared to Statistics Canada data (Gilmour, 2014).

So, with all these mental health challenges, it’s important for us to understand what mentally healthy student-athletes do to protect and promote their mental health. That way, we can start to understand what works for them (along with the “how” and “why” it works) to inform future programs, policies and supports.

To better promote and support university student-athlete mental health, we conducted research that explored how mentally healthy women student-athletes approached their sport season (Pankow et al., 2021). In this article, we’ll share the findings of our research. We’ll also present key action items for coaches and sport administrators to promote student-athletes’ mental health.

Defining mental health: The two-continuum model

Mental health is a state of well-being in which people can realize their potential, deal with normal stress and challenges, and contribute to their community (WHO, 2018). The two-continuum model of mental health, proposed by Corey Keyes (2002), has been incredibly influential in shaping our understanding of mental health. Keyes proposed that mental health is made up of 3 main components, each with their own dimensions.

Component 1: Emotional well-being

You feel:

Component 2: Psychological well-being

You feel or experience:

Component 3: Social well-being

You feel that:

A picture of a head with wrinkled up colored paperWith this model, someone who is flourishing feels 2 of the 3 parts of emotional well-being every day or almost every day, and they feel 6 of the dimensions of psychological or social well-being every day or almost every day. What makes this model useful is that it considers mental health and mental illness as related but separate. That means someone who is successfully managing their mental illness can still flourish despite their clinical diagnosis. Meanwhile, someone without a mental illness might not be mentally healthy.

Keyes considers people to be “languishing” if they almost never feel any of the parts of emotional, psychological and social well-being. Languishing is different from a clinical mental illness, because it’s the absence of mental health, rather than the presence of symptoms of a mental illness. People who are neither flourishing nor languishing are moderately mentally healthy. This gives us the chance to look at mental health promotion in a different way, because we can start to see how activities that provide people with a sense of happiness, purpose, confidence and belonging (like sport!) can be a useful setting for building mental health and helping people flourish.

How mentally healthy student-athletes approach their sport season

The purpose of our research was to examine the factors that protect mental health among flourishing Canadian university student-athletes over the course of their sport season. The participants included 6 women, all USports athletes, during the 2019 to 2020 competitive year. They were in their second, third, fourth or fifth years of eligibility and were members of rugby, cross country, or track and field teams.

A man's hand with pen writing on notebook.First, student-athletes completed a survey about their mental health. Those who were flourishing in sport and overall were invited to participate in the rest of the study, involving a pre- and post-season interview, and weekly journals during the season. During the pre-season interview, we asked participants about what they did to help them flourish in the lead-up to their season and how they had prepared for their season. During their competitive season, they recorded in their weekly journal and reflected on their experiences that contributed to or took away from their flourishing. Once their competitive season ended, we interviewed participants 1 last time. Those final interviews covered their journals’ contents as well as thoughts about their season overall and plans for the off-season.

We analyzed the data from the surveys, interviews and journals to better understand how these student-athletes managed their mental health over the course of a sport season. Through our analysis, we found that the student-athletes took a different approach to their mental health at each stage of the season. Those stages included the pre-season, in-season (during their competition period) and post-season (when there were no more competitions). Here, the post-season refers to the month after the student-athletes finished competing, not playoffs!

In the pre-season, the student-athletes built their overall mental health by planning out their in-season schedules and making positive connections with friends, family and club sport teammates.

A male football coach teaching a male athlete how to hold onto the ballIn-season, the participants switched to maintaining their mental health. To maintain mental health, they managed their commitments, communicated with coaches and looked for positives.

In the post-season, the student-athletes discussed taking time to reinvest in their mental health. Reinvesting in mental health involved reflecting on their season and taking a break from sport.

Together, these approaches to mental health can give us ideas that might be able to change the way we think about sport seasons to help us better support and promote student-athlete mental health.

Direct actions to support student-athlete mental health

Female volleyball player serving the ball to the other teamWhen we look at this research, it’s clear that these student-athletes took an active role in protecting and promoting their mental health. So, what are some ways that might help them (and other athletes) manage their mental health throughout a competitive season?

  1. Plan in the pre-season: Each of the student-athletes in this study spent time in the pre-season planning out how they were going to manage their time demands in-season. Buying a planner or using a calendar or notes app can be a useful way for student-athletes to organize their schedules. However, they must commit to using these tools for them to help. It might be useful for coaches to set aside time for a team meeting in the pre-season and dedicate that meeting to planning tools and tips. During this time, coaches, senior team leaders, or support staff (academic or athletic) could teach athletes how to make a study schedule or use a weekly planner.
  2. Communicate in-season: Whether with friends, family, teammates or coaches, communication with the people around the student-athletes was a key part of participants’ mental health management in our study. Communication isn’t always easy for athletes, and coaches have a role to play here too. Athletes need to be comfortable communicating early, being clear with what they want or need, and asking for help when they need it. On the other hand, coaches need to build trusting, caring relationships with athletes. Being open and honest with athletes can be an excellent way of creating an open door for two-way communication.
  3. Reflect in the off-season: Reflecting on the season involved an active process of identifying growth that the student-athletes had experienced. In addition to setting goals for the future, athletes should take time to think about and celebrate how they’ve improved or what they’ve achieved during the season. Coaches can help athletes reflect on their growth by hosting exit meetings with each athlete at the end of a season. During this meeting, coaches can discuss the athlete’s progress and ask about what made them the most excited or proud during the past year.

Organizational considerations

Two university basketball players giving each other a low five.Our research findings demonstrated the following common thread underpinning the student-athletes’ actions to build, maintain and re-invest in their mental health: The student-athletes all had time off to do what they needed to do to flourish.

Take the pre-season, for example. A student-athlete who is training with their university team all summer is going to have limited opportunities to spend time with their friends who play club level sports. Not having the opportunity to play for their club team could also limit that student-athlete’s development as an athlete. Perhaps they would have an opportunity to grow into a new role with their club team, an experience that they don’t have with their university team. Having time off from sport activities during bye-week weekends in-season and then after the season ended also provided student-athletes with the time they needed to manage their commitments to school, family and friends, while decompressing and reflecting on what they’ve achieved.

Other researchers have similarly noted the importance of rest for mental health. An excellent body of work by David Eccles and colleagues at Florida State University is examining the importance of rest in high-performance athletes. What they’ve found is that athletes need different kinds of rest to mentally recover (Eccles & Kazmier, 2019). So, a day off from practice or low-intensity training might be physically restful, but if the coach holds meetings or assigns homework (like watching video) requiring cognitive engagement, the coach might be interfering with the athletes’ mental recovery, and ultimately their ability to flourish.

female runner resting after a runA key finding from both our research and the Eccles and Kazmier (2019) study is that time off allowed for something called wakeful active rest. Wakeful active rest involved activities with low cognitive demands, like listening to music, playing video games or escaping from sport to talk with non-sport people about other interests, hobbies and passions. For coaches, this means that giving student-athletes 1 day off per week from practice or training, but expecting them to use it to watch videos, study for school or attend team meetings and team-building activities may not provide the student-athletes with adequate psychological recovery. Inadequate recovery can lead to burnout, and over time potentially even languishing.

Coaches need to think about how time constraints might be affecting their student-athletes. Coaches should consider how the schedule or structure of training can be modified to allow time and space for low cognitive demand activities. Likewise, sport administrators should consider policies that limit team activities during bye-weeks or time off. Such strategies give student-athletes the time and space to recover mentally. These strategies could also help student-athletes feel sharper and be more attentive when they come back to practice, making greater use of the team’s valuable training and meeting time.


Mental health is an increasingly important topic in sport, and for good reason. Recent research has provided insights into how we can help support student-athlete mental health over the course of a season. We might be able to help more student-athletes flourish in terms of their mental health by: giving them tools in the pre-season so they can plan for their sport schedule’s demands, communicating with them openly throughout the season, and helping them reflect on their growth at the end of a season. If we combine these actions with considerations about how the sport environment can be changed to allow student-athletes time to rest, recover and manage their non-sport demands, we can be well on our way to making the most of the Canadian university sport system we’re all so passionate about.


Brave testimonies by Canadian athletes such as Clara Hughes, Nadia Popov and Brittany MacLean as well as tragedies like the suicide of university basketball player Alex McLaughlin shed light on the fact that mental health challenges happen to athletes too. Athletes, coaches and support staff have unique needs, demands, pressures and expectations that they must effectively manage daily. However, this can be challenging to do. And that can lead to diminished well-being and overall health in the presence of high stress that is paired with underrecovery as well as a lack of both support and help-seeking (Gouttebarge, 2019; Reardon et al., 2019).

We all know that health is an essential ingredient for success in sport. So why has it taken so long for the mental dimension of sport participants’ health to be given the attention it rightfully deserves? After all, everything starts in the brain. And if the brain isn’t firing optimally, it jeopardizes sport participants’ ability to reach consistent high-level performance (Reardon et al., 2019). Physical injuries have typically been treated without question and without stigma in sport. It’s time for the sport community to do the same for mental injuries. With the brain playing a role in all bodily functions (controlling organs, thoughts, emotions, memory, speech and movements), individuals with reduced mental functioning must get the same compassionate care and support that’s traditionally been given for decreased physical functioning.

But it isn’t easy to change attitudes, behaviours and culture in sport. To provide a compass for this process, it’s essential to develop a national strategy that takes into consideration available scientific evidence, best practices around the world, and nuances of the Canadian context. Every stakeholder must be part of the solution and strive toward the common goal of promoting and protecting mental health in sport, using a clear and relevant roadmap.

This article introduces Canada’s tool to do so: the Mental Health Strategy for High Performance Sport in Canada, “the strategy” (Durand-Bush & Van Slingerland, 2021). This article provides an overview of how and why we developed the strategy. It also lists ways that sport leaders can begin to implement aspects of the strategy. It concludes with a list of frequently asked questions including responses and links to multiple resources. With this information, we hope that stakeholders at all levels of the Canadian sport system will answer the call to integrate mental health in their strategic plans and practices. We also want them to appreciate the mounting evidence that mental health is a key performance factor in reaching the podium.

“The resources need to be more readily available and clearly laid out as to what they are, where they are and how to access them. This isn’t just about stigma, it’s on many different levels. It’s a major issue in Canada … I want the help I had available to me, the support that allowed me to get through that and go on to do some really, pretty incredible things in my life that I continue to pursue, to be there for everyone.”

Clara Hughes, 4-time Olympian speaks with CBC Sports about her experience with depression

Developing the strategy

In July of 2018, a group of Canadian sport leaders (the ‘Mental Health Partner Group’) representing Own the Podium (OTP), the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS), Game Plan, and the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network (COPSIN) began to lay the groundwork to develop the strategy (Durand-Bush & Van Slingerland, 2021). The primary aim of the strategy is to improve mental health outcomes for all Canadian athletes, coaches, and staff. Establishing and officially launching the strategy in July 2021 was the culmination of several years of research, consultation and teamwork, with careful consideration of the Canadian sport context.

The project was carried out by many stakeholders across Canada forming 4 different groups:

  1. The Mental Health Partner Group gathered foundational data and provided guidance, direction and oversight of the strategy.
  2. The Mental Health Expert Group developed the strategy’s content, based on scientific evidence and professional expertise.
  3. The Mental Health Reviewer Group reviewed the strategy and provided input based on scientific evidence and professional expertise.
  4. The Sport Community Group provided input on needs and gaps before developing the strategy and gave feedback after it was developed.

Understanding the strategy

The strategy’s underlying premise is that athletes who are mentally healthy are more likely to consistently perform at the highest levels in sport and continue contributing to sport after retirement. Also, athletes are more likely to reach their full potential and achieve success if coaches and staff are mentally healthy too. Therefore, in addition to focusing on athletes, the strategy also focuses on key leaders in the sport context, who are supporting athletes across their career.

Both mental health and mental illness must be considered to fully understand functioning and performance across the lifespan. Mental health is a state of psychological, emotional and social well-being. In that state, individuals are capable to feel, think and act in ways that allow them to enjoy life, realize their potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to their community (World Health Organization, 2018).

Male athlete with a disability sitting in gym, uncertain

In contrast, mental illness (ill-being) is a health condition characterized by alterations in individuals’ feeling, thinking, and behaving that lead to significant distress and impaired functioning in their personal and professional activities. Mental illness refers to all diagnosable mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use disorders (World Health Organization, 2010; Mood Disorders Society of Canada, 2019). Priorities in the strategy target mental health promotion as well as mental illness prevention and treatment. Importantly, everyone can play a role in creating the proper environment in which sport participants can thrive and obtain adequate services and resources when they’re struggling.

Another vital component of the strategy is mental performance. Mental performance is the capability with which individuals use cognitive processes (that is, attention, decision-making, perception, memory, reasoning, coordination) and mental or self-regulation competencies (that is, knowledge and skills) to perform in their changing environment. Examples of mental performance competencies include goal-setting, planning, motivation, self-confidence, control (arousal, emotional, attentional), imagery, resilience, self-talk, stress management, communication, leadership and evaluation (Van Slingerland, 2019). Mental performance is key for bolstering mental health and buffering against the risks of mental health challenges and illness.

Actioning the strategy

The aspirational strategy includes 5 priorities (see figure 1). Each priority is outlined with clear objectives, background information, and recommended actions to guide stakeholders. For the strategy to be successfully implemented and lead to sustainable positive mental health outcomes, then engagement, communication and alignment are needed. They’re required right across the entire sport system, from Sport Canada, Multi-Sport Service Organizations (MSOs), and National and Provincial/Territorial Sport Organizations (NSOs and PTSOs) to coaches, support staff (for example, Mental Performance Consultants [MPCs]) and athletes.

Figure 1. Priorities and objectives from the mental health strategy (presented in no particular order of importance).

It will take time and resources to address all aspects of the strategy. However, the Mental Health Steering Group created to oversee the strategy has already undertaken some actions to guide and support the high performance sport system to implement the strategy. For instance, Game Plan hired a national Mental Health Manager who, with the support of the CCMHS, formed a national Mental Health Network  of vetted mental health practitioners with high performance sport knowledge, experience and expertise. A Mental Performance Ally Network, consisting of MPCs who can work in collaboration with mental health practitioners, has been created too. Other short-term actions stemming from the strategy include identifying COPSIN, NSO, and MSO points of contact, defining clear referral pathways to access mental health care, and developing and delivering fundamental educational programs across the sport ecosystem to increase mental performance and mental health literacy.

Worldwide, Canada is now 1 of only 2 countries with a comprehensive national mental health strategy for high performance sport and a national mental health steering group that includes a national mental health manager. Canada also has a strong and vibrant community of MPCs. They play an active role in promoting and nurturing mental health within the sport community, and collaborating with mental health practitioners when challenges and illness arise. There are currently 200 MPCs who are professional members of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association. Of those members, 32 of them have a dual credential of MPC and clinical or registered psychologist or counsellor. Given the rise in Safe Sport issues reported in Canada and the rest of the world, it’s crucial for sport leaders to hire legitimate MPCs who: (a) have adequate education and training, (b) have adequate professional and ethical practice competencies, and (c) are in good standing with the Association (see requirements here).

Did you know?
The Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA) is an organization that oversees the practice of mental performance in Canada. One of its mandates is to assess and list Mental Performance Consultants (MPCs) who meet minimum requirements to provide mental performance services in Canada. The CSPA also recognizes MPCs who are dually trained as licensed and registered mental health practitioners (that is, psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, social workers; Durand-Bush & Van Slingerland, 2020).

What NSO leaders and staff should know

NSOs may initially feel overwhelmed, even though the strategy is an incredible roadmap to improve the collective well-being of sport system participants. Leaders may wonder where to begin and how to make an impact in the mental health space, given their own limited financial and human resources. As the Mental Health Manager with Game Plan, part of Dr. Krista Van Slingerland’s role is to support organizations and individuals within the system to implement the strategy as well as mental health programs, initiatives, and resources more generally. Below, Dr. Van Slingerland answers frequently asked questions about the strategy.

  1. What mental health supports exist for athletes within the high performance system?

Athletes have access to both general and sport-focused mental health support that is free of charge or subsidized by Game Plan. These include:

A summary of the subsidized supports available to athletes are shown in an infographic titled, Pathways to mental health support.

  1. What mental health supports exist for coaches and NSO staff within the high performance system?

alpine ski racer in winter

Coaches and NSO staff can access Lifeworks’ services free of charge. This is the only coverage currently available to them through Game Plan. Coaches and staff could be directed to a mental health practitioner through the MHN or CCMHS, but these services aren’t covered by Game Plan.

  1. Where can NSO leaders and staff find resources to help them address mental health in their organization?

Resources for NSOs can be found in the NSO Sharing Centre hosted by the Canadian Olympic Committee. Here you’ll find tools and resources such as a Needs and Gap Assessment Tool to assist NSOs in integrating mental health into their strategic plan, and one-page fact sheets with information about how mental health intersects with a number of priority areas within sport such as performance, maltreatment, and risk management. If sport leaders are interested in getting updates on mental health straight to their inbox, including new tools, resources and workshops being offered to athletes, coaches and support staff, they can join the mental health mailing list.

  1. As an NSO with limited human and financial capacity, what can I do to address mental health?

To make an impact in the mental health space, it isn’t necessary to have a mental health strategy specific to your sport, or an embedded mental health practitioner within your IST. There are easier and cheaper ways to begin to address mental health, including:

To further develop your organization’s approach to mental health, consider working through the Needs and Gaps Assessment Tool for sport leaders.

  1. Is it necessary to embed a mental health practitioner within our IST?

Rugby players and their coach gathering before a match

It’s unnecessary to have a full-time or part-time mental health practitioner embedded within your IST, and this isn’t a recommendation in the strategy. Given empirical evidence and feedback from the sport community (such as, athletes, coaches, support staff), Game Plan opted to support a “network” approach to mental health service provision. This way athletes may choose a mental health practitioner who is a good fit for them. The network approach also removes barriers to seeking help (for example, fear that seeking help through NSO structures will impact athletes’ career). Lastly, it assumes the financial and administrative burden of vetting practitioners, assessing athletes’ symptoms, collecting consistent aggregate (anonymized) data, matching athletes with an appropriate practitioner, and administering payment to providers.

Hiring a mental health practitioner to provide care within your NSO could facilitate contextual knowledge, accessibility to care, and collaboration within the IST. However, many athletes report that they prefer to seek care via the MHN or the CCMHS to maintain anonymity and confidentiality. Mental health practitioners must respect several regulations (see the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act; the Personal Health Information Protection Act; and the Mental Health Act; the Child, Youth and Family Services Act). So, fully integrating practitioners into teams or sports could pose challenges. Furthermore, this would represent a duplication of some costs and structures that have been put in place at the national level, dollars that could be redirected within your organization. Contracting a mental health practitioner or a dually certified MPC to deliver, contribute to, and support the mental health programming and resources being developed at the national level would arguably be a more efficient use of dollars directed toward mental health.


The strategy exists to ensure that the sport system has a long-term plan and adequate funding to equip athletes, coaches, and support staff with appropriate knowledge, skills and support to manage their mental health and thrive throughout their career. NSO leaders and staff wishing to further understand and improve how they address mental health, please contact Dr. Van Slingerland for assistance:


Phone: 647 619-2654


SIRC asked sports journalist Teddy Katz to write a follow-up story to his article, “Preparing for an Olympic and Paralympic Games like no other,” published in July, ahead of Tokyo 2020. In that article, Katz had highlighted how there would be a focus on mental health and well-being in Tokyo in ways we’ve never seen before.

In part 2, Katz shares the lessons learned from the experience of the Canadian teams in the lead-up to and during the Games in Tokyo. As Katz points out, Tokyo involved watershed moments around mental health with stress levels at an all-time high because of the pandemic. He explains how Canada has become a world leader in creating a mental health strategy for high performance sport. But he also highlights how the sport system faces huge challenges in trying to implement it.

Putting mental health first

With the Olympic spotlight focused on her, one of the best gymnasts in the world, Simone Biles, made headlines around the world when she pulled out of several events during Tokyo 2020. And according to one of Canada’s top athletes, it was a ground-breaking moment around mental health.

Wrestler Erica Wiebe, who won a gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, was watching closely while in Tokyo. “That was an incredibly powerful way [for Simone Biles] to say that ‘my humanity is more important than my results,’” says Wiebe. “It was a bellwether moment for sport. I hope athletes saw that and realize no matter who they are, they have power.”

Close up of a men's quadruple skulls rowing team, seconds after the start of their race

Caileigh Filmer learned going into Tokyo she has that same power. One hundred days out to the Games, the world champion rower was about to quit her sport because her world was spiralling out of control. She was experiencing another round of depression, similar to what forced her to step away from the sport for the first time in 2019. Just 3 months before Tokyo, her state of mental health made her terrified just thinking about going to the Games.

Filmer’s Olympic dream was only saved after a friend reminded her that she had always been open about her mental health. Instead of her quitting, he encouraged her to inspire others by showing them how she could “kick her depression in the butt.” She ended up writing a gratitude journal and shared the first-hand account of her struggles on her Instagram account and in a story with Rowing Canada. She says winning a bronze medal in Tokyo was icing on the cake after the rocky road to get there.

“I went to [Tokyo to] kick my depression in the butt, hoping it would help at least one other person. I found by sharing [my story] it did help a lot of other people with their own struggles.”

– Caileigh Filmer

Normalizing the conversation

According to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) 2019 statement on mental health in elite athletes, mental health symptoms and disorders can occur in a range of anywhere from 5 to as many as 35% of elite athletes. The data synthesized in the consensus statement also showed that 33.6% of elite athletes and 26.4% of former athletes reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. Meanwhile 49% reported sleep-related problems.

In response, the IOC created a mental health recognition toolkit to help those in sport spot symptoms. The toolkit also helps them recognize a range of issues, from mental health challenges to being officially diagnosed with a mental illness, and everything in between.

People Joining Hands

According to Karen MacNeill, who has served as the mental health lead for the Canadian Olympic Committee at several Games, the sport world has come a long way and is now talking more about mental health. MacNeill has been on the ground helping the Canadian Olympic Team since the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. She was in Tokyo this summer and will support the team once again in Beijing.

She says in the past, there have always been big challenges including the stigma around mental health and the way athletes are revered in society which can create barriers for them to seek out assistance. “They’re held to a certain standard, but sometimes they feel the opposite of how they think they should feel based on these expectations of them. And so, there’s this sense of stoicism,” says MacNeill. “It’s kind of like they say to themselves, ‘I have to endure this without issue and complaint. That’s how we train that’s how we get better.’ And I think, it’s a matter of acknowledging that it’s okay to not be okay.”

MacNeill says the Simone Biles case highlighted how mental health and wellness go beyond athletes simply showing they’re human. She says there’s a safety and performance component too. She also says she’s pleased to see these conversations are becoming a little easier for athletes.

“Athletes are starting to see it as a sign of strength rather than worrying that by reaching out ‘I’m demonstrating that I’m incompetent or incapable.’”

– Karen MacNeill

Susan Cockle became the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s first-ever mental health lead in Tokyo, helping support athletes, coaches and staff. Her experiences in Tokyo also reinforced how conversations around mental health are becoming increasingly normalized in high performance sport.

“What I was pleasantly surprised about was, when people know your position is the mental health lead, and you ask them, how are you doing today? They were ready to tell you, so I think we have come further in normalizing the mental health conversation than even I had expected.”

– Susan Cockle

Cockle had conversations in the dining hall and while walking around the village at all hours. “Some would say, I’m feeling fatigued, or I’m stressed, or feeling pressure. That is a gateway into a conversation around how we can support you,” says Cockle. “That creates a safe space to hold these conversations. That is prevention in action.”

Lessons learned from Tokyo

Ahead of the Tokyo Games, MacNeill and Cockle held information sessions to educate the entire Canadian team about mental health. They encouraged everyone to think through the different scenarios of things that could go sideways, and how they would handle each scenario if it happened. That included how they would deal with COVID‑19 countermeasures. For example, each team member had to test themselves daily for COVID‑19 and couldn’t go anywhere outside of their venue and the Athlete’s Village.

According to Cockle, the COVID‑19 restrictions created an added layer of pressure. “There weren’t the usual outlets that people could use to just decompress, for example, being allowed to go to a venue and take in a live sporting event,” she says. “That is a great decompressor being able to a see a sporting event to yell, cheer, clap, and have a release. That is a buffer for mental health. We didn’t have that.”

Reflecting on her experience at the Games, Cockle says she would encourage anybody going to Beijing to think of creative ways they can let off steam. “Maybe it’s doing some physical activity or walking around the village, maybe it’s having different playlists on their phones. I would encourage everyone to have one person (on site or at home) that’s going to be their go-to person to vent to and with whom they can just be themselves.”

MacNeill says she’s planning to share many insights with the winter teams getting ready for Beijing. The insights include building robust strategies for stress relief and recovery. She says the constant pivoting everyone must do because of COVID‑19 can be overwhelming and the pressure can last right until the last minute of the Games.

“It’s almost like a teeter totter. One second, you’re in balance, the next second you’re not. So, you need to think what extra support you need to manage all that.”

– Karen McNeill

Sports that built mental fitness and resilience into their plans, including athletics and swimming, thrived in Tokyo, according to MacNeill.

Addressing mental health beyond the Games

An added complication for many athletes in the lead-up to the Games came when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of many events and competitions. These cancellations created uncertainty and challenges for athletes as they attempted to qualify and prepare for the Games. For Paralympic athletes in particular, these cancellations meant that some athletes needed to be classified for their events in Tokyo at the last minute.

Para-athletics race. Closeup view of leading athlete during a race on the track.

Classification is mandatory for an athlete to compete in Para sport competition. It determines which athletes are eligible to compete in the different events and how athletes are grouped together for competition. Under ordinary circumstances, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) doesn’t allow classification to take place at major games such as the Paralympic Games. This helps prevent potential psychological or emotional distress among athletes who are reclassified (or unable to be classified) immediately before competition.

But with limited opportunities to access classification in the lead-up to Tokyo, the IPC suspended its in-Games, zero-classification policy and allowed athletes in 10 sports to be classified at the Games. Canadian Para cyclist Tristen Chernove was 1 of those athletes. He was so upset after he was reclassified in Tokyo, he retired after his first race and flew back to Canada. The news that his degenerative disease was getting worse hit him hard.

Chernove told CBC he did plenty of crying. It didn’t sit well with him that he’d now be competing against athletes in a class where most of his competitors had greater impairments than him and had to overcome more than he did to have the same result. Chernove says he already enjoyed so much success in sport, he couldn’t see himself taking away a podium spot from somebody who might be enjoying it for the first time.

Amid the broader impacts of the COVID‑19 pandemic, Chernove’s story highlights the importance of mental health support that’s available to athletes not only during the Games, but beyond the Games as well. In fact, mental health experts say that the post-Games period can be especially tough on athletes with many experiencing “post Olympic blues.”

Cockle says the blues, or a lowering of mood and an increase in irritability, are often felt by athletes, coaches and staff after the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This comes about due to the extreme levels of stress and pressure they’ve experienced along with emotional exhaustion, which often results in a sudden disconnect from the team. Even athletes who perform a personal best or come away with a medal aren’t immune.

Cockle says if athletes open up about mental health, they need to know where they can go for support post-Games. That’s why the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees sent Game Plan resources to every athlete, coach and staff (official) who were at the Games. The available resources include access to confidential counselling (any day and at any hour) and cover retirement and career planning.

Coaches and sport leaders have their own mental health challenges

While most of the attention in Tokyo was on athletes, Cockle says sport leaders faced some of the worst mental health challenges. In the lead-up to and during the Games, high performance directors and team leaders were constantly adapting. They needed to disseminate information to athletes, even when the directors and leaders themselves had limited knowledge of what was happening.

In the end, Cockle says some sport leaders felt helpless because they couldn’t do their jobs the way they normally would. “Those were the people that had the least amount of control and had the most amount of responsibility for others. That is a recipe for burnout,” she says.

That’s something Martin Goulet has seen as well. He’s the Executive Director of Water Polo Canada and Co-chair of the Summer Sport Caucus, which represents 46 of the national sport organizations (NSOs). Goulet says there’s normally turnover of high performance directors and coaches after a Games, but this year the turnover seems abnormally high after Tokyo. Nine high performance directors had left different sports at the time of Goulet’s interview.

Goulet says that preparing a team to perform at its best, dealing with safe sport, mental health and other issues with no increase in financial resources while dealing with the COVID‑19 pandemic has created a perfect storm. 

“There are more and more demands in sport. We are expecting sport to come to the rescue of all kinds of things. But it doesn’t come with more capacity. So, that’s creating tremendous pressure, and in some cases, it’s too much.”

– Martin Goulet

But while athletes are starting to speak out more about the mental health challenges they face, we seldom hear from the leaders in sport, especially the coaches. Coaches take in the stress of their athletes, but rarely show their own. That’s according to Ozzie Sawicki, a long-time Para sport coach who was on the mission staff for Team Canada in 2008. He provided support to coaches at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. There, he spent many evenings listening to coaches privately share their personal stresses, mental concerns and mental fatigue.

Sawicki says coaches shared those stories with him because he was a fellow coach, and because they knew these conversations weren’t going to be heard outside those walls, especially by their athletes. “As leaders, they are trying to show they have everything under control. And they don’t want to let anyone see when they are having their weakest moments,” says Sawicki. “They are afraid people might lose faith in the strength of their leadership.” That’s another reason why Cockle says it’s so important to offer a safe place for mental health support throughout the quadrennial for coaches and everyone involved in high performance sport.

Canada’s new high performance mental health strategy

To that end, in July 2021, Canada became one of only a handful of nations in the world to release a formalized mental health strategy for high performance sport. Canadian experts in mental health and sport developed the strategy based on scientific evidence, applied expertise, and after studying international best practices. The strategy has 5 main priority areas with a focus on prevention, education, and giving everyone involved in sport the tools to recognize and develop the skills to maintain positive mental health.

Krista Van Slingerland is the Mental Health Manager at Game Plan. In this role, she’s leading the new strategy’s implementation and helping to coordinate nationwide mental health services and resources for high performance sport. One of her first tasks is to try to get champions within the sport system to help promote the strategy.

“What I hope is that there’s sort of a trickle-down effect because we’re focusing at the high performance level, but with the recognition that the earlier in the high performance pathway we intervene it will decrease sport dropout,” Van Slingerland says.

While athletes like Simon Biles helped raise awareness of mental health issues at the Tokyo Olympic Games, Van Slingerland says there still needs to be shift in mindset in sport because many are still suffering in silence. “There are factors like sport culture and mental toughness that are barriers to people reaching out for support,” she says. “In the past 10 years, it’s getting better, but we teach athletes to ignore pain and not recognize emotions. Emotion has been positioned as something that’s negative or not helpful in sport.”

Van Slingerland says it’s important to educate NSOs so they can mitigate those risk factors and recognize when sport might even inflict its own mental health challenges. Another challenge with implementing the strategy is that many NSOs don’t have the financial and human resources to address mental health. That’s why the strategy asks NSOs to start with their own specific gaps and needs. NSOs without their own mental health leads or resources will now be able to turn to a network of mental health professionals with an expertise in sport, right across the country.

“It really comes down to a couple of things and funding is one of them. The other is the collective will of our sport leaders to move the needle on this,” says Van Slingerland. “I wouldn’t say people don’t want to address mental health. I think it’s overwhelming, though.”

Caileigh Filmer, who has now retired from rowing and is training with the national cycling team, says it’s crucial to offer ongoing mental health support in sport. She says while she’s savouring her bronze medal from Tokyo, some days just getting out of bed might be a victory for her.

“Defeating mental health once isn’t the end of it. There are going to be challenges and struggles throughout your life. And so having these skills when things are thrown at you, I think is incredibly important.”

– Caileigh Filmer