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A puzzle of the human brain

Life as a high-level athlete has its ups and downs. There is success and failure, stress, pressure, endless doubts, injuries, days where you are surrounded by people and others where you are completely by yourself. It’s a train of emotions, one after the other, almost simultaneously. It can be too much to process.

In the past year, many athletes and international celebrities have united their voices to raise awareness on mental health and break its stereotypes. Para-hockey player Kevin Rempel, figure skater Gabrielle Daleman, snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll and many more shared their personal stories about mental health. Within broader society, there has been a mentality shift making help more accessible. However, within the sport environment, awareness and support for those experiencing mental health issues still needs to increase.

Mental health is everybody’s business

Game Plan Advisor Lisa Hoffart, a Registered Psychologist (Provisional) and Mental Performance Consultant, explains that mental health is a spectrum. “We are neither healthy or sick. Often, without any diagnosed mental health issue, you can benefit from a little help, simply because we are not doing as well as we should,” she says.

Types of issues affecting athletes

Mental health, like physical health, should be an athlete’s priority. They can experience different issues, serious or not, that can hinder their wellbeing. According to Lisa, the sport community is not the exception. “A lot of athletes feel like they have so much to do that they get frozen and they can’t get re-started; they’re feeling overwhelmed but are unable to act to fix the situation. They have anxiety, but it doesn’t mean they have an anxiety disorder.”

Another frequent symptom gets often overlooked but has a tremendous effect on wellbeing: feeling bad, down or depressed without any exact reason. “As things are going well in their life, they should normally feel happy. But they feel uneasy, they stop laughing as much as usual, they sometimes have a short temper or get abnormally mad” explains Hoffart. “These are signs that something is off mentally.”

Talking to someone can help you understand what is happening and what is wrong. “Tackle the issue as soon as possible to make sure you get help so you can fix the situation before the problem gets out of hand” says Hoffart, encouraging athletes to put words on their symptoms.

How are you doing?

Have you noticed that your teammate, friend or loved one seems off lately? Are you wondering what to do? The first thing, according to Lisa, is to ask yourself what has changed in their behaviour and what has sparked your concerns. Are they distant, sad or aggressive? Have they gained or lost weight? The second step is to talk with them. Ask them first, “How are you doing?” Then talk to them about what you’ve noticed and that you’re concerned about their mental health. Expressing your concerns and creating a space for them to be heard will make it more likely that they are willing to share their experiences.

Tips for athletes struggling with their mental health

If you feel stressed, anxious or depressed:

  • Have a look at you are eating, drinking and sleeping habits. The way you take care of yourself can affect your mental health.
  • Try to have a meaningful discussion with someone that makes you feel good. We often overuse social media and emails to communicate. Meeting someone one-on-one or calling them on the phone can improve your mood.
  • Do something that makes you happy. Whether it is as simple as reading, listening to music or drawing, take some time for yourself.
  • Prioritise what makes you feel good. Our attention, particularly for athletes, is often focused on what we see as problems or what needs to be fixed. We forget about the positive things that make us happy.
  • Stop comparing yourself. Everybody responds to stress differently. Learn how to recognise stressful situations and identify what helps you reduce that stress. Just like there are many ways to prepare for competition, there are many ways to cope with stress – find what works best for you.
Preventive intervention

Most people see a doctor for regular check-ups on their physical health. The same approach should be used for our mental health. A mental health specialist should be part of an athlete’s core support team, not just someone consulted in extreme situations of clinical depression or anxiety disorders. As Lisa explains, “You can see a mental health specialist to address many symptoms. This does not necessarily mean you are suffering from mental illness. Maybe you are just experiencing a mental health issue.”

It is not a sign of weakness to take care of one’s mental health and ask for help. As athletes, we have a habit of hiding our pain. We want to look strong, perfect, and give the impression that our athletic feat is easy. Nevertheless, we all know that behind our performances are buried a lot of effort, difficulties, failures and even tears. Taking care of your mental health is one of the best tools to improve your performance in sport and beyond.

Remember: Game Plan can help

Game Plan, powered by Deloitte, is Canada’s total athlete wellness program that strives to support national team athletes to live better and more holistic lives. The program helps to develop mentally stronger athletes who apply what they have learned as leaders in sport for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

Game Plan is here to help. We work with sport system partners to meet athletes where they are, not where we think they should be, and find ways to help them. Game Plan has a number of mental health-related resources:

  • A dedicated 24/7 mental health and wellness line with Morneau Shepell for athletes.
  • Connections with a variety of health professionals for athletes seeing other types of support.
  • A webinar series on health, which includes topics such as anxiety, the mind-body connection, mindfulness, and more.
  • Mental health awareness training for athlete-facing staff.
  • Transition support for recently retired or soon to be retired athletes to help them explore their identities beyond sport.

About the Author(s)

Audrey Lacroix has been a member of the National Swim Team for 16 years and has competed in the Olympics three times (2008, 2012, 2016). Passionate about communications, she is a writer and social media manager for the Montreal Olympic Park, the National Sports Institute of Quebec and the Game Plan program. Audrey is also a speaker for Jouez Gagnant, a program to promote the benefits of youth sport.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.