Opportunities for mental health promotion in Canadian university sportJanuary 24, 2022
- Evidence suggests that university student-athletes experience poor mental health at higher rates than the general population.
- To better understand and support mental health in the university sport setting, a research team at the University of Alberta studied how mentally healthy women student-athletes approached their season.
- The student-athletes in the study took a different approach to their mental health at each stage of the season:
- In the pre-season, the student-athletes planned out their in-season schedules and built their social support networks to lay a foundation for their mental health.
- In-season, the student-athletes managed commitments, communicated with coaches and looked for positives to maintain their mental health
- In the post-season, the student-athletes reflected on their season and took a break from sport to reinvest in their mental health.
- Direct actions to support student-athlete mental health include making time for student-athletes to plan in the pre-season, facilitating communication during the season, and engaging student-athletes in reflective activities in the off-season.
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.
For 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
- Satisfied with where you’re at in life or where you’re going
- Interested in what you’re doing
Component 2: Psychological well-being
You feel or experience:
- Confidence in yourself and your abilities
- Good relationships with others
- Liking yourself
- Competence in managing your daily life
- Opportunities for growth
- Purpose in life
Component 3: Social well-being
You feel that:
- You have something to contribute to society
- You belong to a community
- The groups you belong to are good for people and getting better
- People are generally good
- The way society works makes sense
With 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.
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.
- Planning helped student-athletes feel confident and prepared for the time demands of the sport season.
- Making positive connections was about creating supportive social networks that would support the student-athletes’ mental health throughout the season.
- Managing their commitments meant staying socially connected to family, friends and significant others. Participants typically took time to connect with these important people during breaks in-season like bye-weeks.
- Communication with coaches was a double-edged sword. Some student-athletes reported that their coaches helped them manage their expectations and celebrate their successes. Other participants reported that their mental health was hindered by a lack of clear or purposeful communication from coaches.
- Looking for positives meant that the student-athletes identified the good things that could be taken from a situation, whether they initially thought the situation was positive or not. For example, a student-athlete who missed time because of an injury had taken time to appreciate how much she had grown in her role as a social leader on the team, specifically by helping younger and rookie players feel integrated in their new environment.
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.
- When reflecting on their season, the student-athletes discussed the importance of recognizing their growth and the things they had become better at overall. This let the student-athletes have a positive outlook on the season, even if their own or their team’s performance didn’t meet their expectations.
- Taking a break from sport allowed them time and space to reflect, but also to reconnect with friends and family. Additionally, the break from sport gave the student-athletes time and space to reconnect with activities that they hadn’t been able to make time for (or at least as much time as they would have liked to) during competition.
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
When 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
A 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.
About the Author(s)
Kurtis Pankow, Ph.D, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Queen’s University. Kurtis completed his PhD at the University of Alberta, where his work examined mental health promotion among athletes and coaches in Canadian university sport. Outside of his research, Kurtis is an avid fan of Canadian football, with experience as a player and coach at Canadian universities, and as a human performance team member in the Canadian Football League.
Tara-Leigh McHugh, Ph.D, is a professor at the University of Alberta, located on Treaty 6 territory, traditional lands of First Nations and Métis people. Her program of research broadly focuses on enhancing the sport, physical activity and body image experiences of youth, particularly girls and Indigenous youth. Drawing upon qualitative and community-based participatory research approaches, her research provides an in-depth exploration of the psychosocial aspects of such experiences.
Amber Mosewich, Ph.D, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on stress, coping and emotion in sport. A key directive of her work is to understand the psychological skills and resources necessary for successful, healthy and positive sport experiences, and how best to foster their development.
Nicholas Holt, Ph.D, is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. His research focuses on psychosocial aspects of participation in sport and physical activity among children, adolescents, and their families. He created the PYDSportNET knowledge translation initiative (@PYDSportNet on Twitter and www.positivesport.ca). In his spare time, Nicholas is a soccer coach and a slow ultramarathoner.
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