To make it to the top rungs in sport, be it high-performance, professional or the Olympics, an athlete has to be strong.
There is no doubt that the best athletes in the world in every sport are not only physically strong, but must be mentally strong as well. We normalize talking about physical health daily: if you have an injured knee, are dealing with digestive issues or have a fever, there tends to be no stigma attached to it. Simply put, it’s how your body is managing.
But when we talk about mental health, it is far from normalized, and I would go as far to say speaking about it is taboo in the world of sports.
Olympic wrestler Leah Ferguson and Dr. Adrienne Leslie Toogood discussed the topic in a recent virtual seminar series I attended, and looked at the issue specifically how it relates to female athletes. Ferguson, being in a heavily male dominated sport, was very open about her journey as it relates to mental health in sport, and how working with Toogood was beneficial for her mental health training.
"Female athletes aren’t openly honest about their mental health, typically," says Ferguson.
"Men don’t have spaces to openly talk about their mental health, and they are typically the ones who are leading and coaching female athletes, especially in male dominated sports (like wrestling)."
Let’s think about it. The pressure and emotions put on athletes and coaches can be extreme.
As a fan, think about how you are feeling when your team is tied with seconds left in the game. Or when your favourite Team Canada swimmer is taking their spot on the blocks and ready to pursue their next gold medal. As fans we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, head in our hands, praying that everything goes just right. Imagine being the athlete with that pressure.
Unfortunately, too often female athletes are told to leave their emotions at the door. Don’t bring it into the gym or onto the playing field. You need to be mentally tough to be the best. For females in a male-dominated sport they cannot be emotional, as it is seen as a weakness. On top of that, your entire identity rests in the hands of who you are as an athlete.
But does this really work? Is it not possible for women to use those emotions as their "super power" and help align them with their values as an athlete? As Ferguson and Toogood point out, it definitely is possible, and should be encouraged.
Female athletes want to see their efforts recognized and equity in their worth as athletes compared to their male counterparts. High-performance athleticism and mental health can go hand in hand. It is more sustainable to use emotions as a tool towards better performance than simply cutting them off. The idolization of "being tough," and being emotional being seen as an attack on this toughness, needs to be replaced with normalizing mental health and having open conversations about it.
Let me be clear: This doesn’t mean that we should open up every practice to having athletes bring drama or life stress into the gym. The focus needs to remain positive and on the task at hand. If your mind is somewhere else, you won’t perform at your best in practice or in competition. But there is a happy medium of allowing for these conversations to be had while performing at optimal levels in sport.
If an athlete came to practice complaining about a shoulder injury, as a parent or coach, you would ask various questions to better understand what is happening and how you can adjust the practice for the day. According to Toogood, this is how we should be treating mental health as well. If an athlete comes to practice and mentions their anxiety is through the roof, it is up to the coach and leadership to ask an assortment of questions to determine how this is going to affect today’s practice. You wouldn’t tell an athlete to leave it at the door with a physical injury or complaint, so too should it be for mental health.
Social, mental, emotional and physical development all need to be a part of sport for female athletes. We need to do better. The stress and mental health challenges that can come along with being a high-performance athlete are huge. We need to normalize talking about mental health and have an open forum to do so. Female athletes cannot be seen as weak or dramatic when wanting to talk about their mental health as it relates to their lives on and off the court. When minds are clear, athletes can be more focused on their performance, and in turn, have better outcomes on and off the playing field.