Local athletes open up about sport challenges and mental health

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

Strong, fast and tough are all adjectives often used to describe superhuman athletes. But oftentimes, the strongest thing they can do is get help.

Advocates for the importance of athlete’s mental health have recently surfaced, especially with the increased online presence and media scrutiny.

This awareness was not a very prevalent phenomenon when now retired professional athletes were playing in their tenure in the 70s and 80s.

Mike Allison is a local hockey player. He played for the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Los Angeles Kings, and finished his tenure 31 years ago.

“I was driving home from a hockey game I played in New York City. I was in pain and I thought it’d be easier to take my life by getting into a car accident,” Allison said about an incident he only mentioned to a few close friends.

“You hide it and don’t make it public. In the last 10 years, I’ve been very upfront about the times that I’ve seen a psychologist about my own mental health and how good it’s been for me to be able to talk to someone both here locally, but also when I was a professional athlete. I’ve been embarrassed about needing to seek help, but I’m not anymore.”

Allison said mental health was not a ‘thing,’ adding that he was not dealing well with the struggles he went through as a player.

The approach on mental health has changed over the last decade, which was evident in the Tokyo Olympics – earmarked by emphasis on mental health challenges faced by two world class athletes: tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles.

That being said, studies about mental health in sports is not a very recent phenomenon. Cal Botterill is a Canadian sports psychologist who authored research papers and a book published in 2003 titled “Perspective: The Key to Life.”

Not only are Botterill’s children and wife international Olympic athletes but also having attended eight Olympic games and worked with five national hockey league teams, he has been immersed in sport psychology.

Botterill argues that recovery and the athlete’s state of being are equally important to training and performing well.

“Recovery is mental and emotional as well as physical,” Botterill worte in a research paper titled Perspective Can Make a Difference. “Mental overload will affect your mental capacities and emotional fatigue can affect all capacities.”

Allison is not the only local athlete who noticed a shift in how people perceive mental health.

Scott Fawcett, also a Fort Frances local, has coached University football and the  Canadian Football League since 1978. He said the emphasis on mental health has grown dramatically since the early 80s, adding that nowadays there are more aspects that could throw an athlete out of balance.

Life balance is a first step to handling crisis situations, Fawcett said, adding that the more balanced an athlete’s life is, including family, spirits, education and vocation, the more balanced this athlete could be.

“Athletics can’t be the only thing in your life. When your life and your total feeling of self worth is wrapped up just in who you are as an athlete, you’re going to come up against somebody who’s better than you and then your whole feeling of worth is going to take a big hit,” Fawcett said.

“The more sports you play, the more well-rounded you are because you’ve had to adapt to different styles of coaching. You’ve had to learn to work with different groups of people. A lot of the top university football programs in the United States specifically recruit multi-sport athletes who had to learn all those different social and mental skills and who moved their bodies in different patterns other than what their sport requires.”

Other aspects have provided a less-than-ideal atmosphere for athletes to strive. One of them being the media scrums after games. Fawcett said although he believes reporters are not asking questions to be intentionally hurtful, in search for an exclusive angle, they have become more intrusive.

Another example Fawcett mentioned is social media.

“Athletes need some privacy in their lives,” Fawcett said. “They can’t live in a glass house all the time. The more that you try to become active on social media and put yourself out there, the more you live your life in a fishbowl. I don’t think that’s a healthy way for anybody to live their lives.”

Fawcett coached at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and Rocky Mountain College in Montana.

He said some players who needed immediate assistance would walk into his office, and he would then refer them to a professional counsellor.

“You recognize that you cannot be a professional in that field,” Fawcett said. “In some cases, I’ve had to walk university football players over to the counselings office and sit with them there until the counsellor can see them and then hand them off. And at that point, anything that happens is confidential between them and the counsellor.

Back in the 70s, there was no way anybody other than a close confidant of an athlete knew what they were going through, Fawcett said adding that the stigma of asking for help and being seen as weak, has lessened, although it’s still there.

Botterill said repression or denial of feelings on the other hand can interfere with recovery and emotional health.

Allison said he has only opened up about seeing a psychologist ten years ago, adding that he is happy to see young athletes coming out and asking for help instead of grinning and bearing it.

A main reason athletes need this help is because they are often subject to unintentional pressure to overachieve, Allison added.

Scott Fawcett is a local athlete who professionally played and coached football since 1978. Fawcett said he noticed a positive shift in how people in the sports industry view mental health struggles. With increasing social media presence, Fawcett advices athletes to have a balanced life and maintain online privacy as a first step to coping with difficult times. – YouTube photo

Sports teach life lessons, give a sense of belonging and provide lifelong friendships, Allison said, and it also teaches them that it is ok to fail because failure is a part of life.

“We all feel that our children are going to be the next Wayne Gretzky,” Allison said. “But how many Wayne Gretzky’s are there? There’s so many life lessons children can learn from these activities. We should step back and look at what they’re accomplishing and their ability in having to participate and be part of something bigger. I think that would make our children’s experience even more enjoyable.”