A New Wave: The Conversation of Mental Health in Sport

In the last six months, we have seen an unprecedented wave rise in the sports world. It is one that has dared to challenge the preconceived attitudes that have governed that world, one that has the audacity to decentralize sport from the conversation…

The wave of athletes putting their mental health above athletic endeavors, subsequently forcing us to do the same. 

Athletes have struggled with mental health issues for as long as there have been athletes, because, and this may shock you, athletes are humans, and all humans have mental health. But this recent movement of mental health awareness is the first time we’ve seen a dent begin to be made on the last bastion of old school sport, and it was Naomi Osaka who took the first swing. 

When the tennis star forewent her post-match press conference after her first-round win at Roland Garros, she left the tennis world with anything but silence. Debates immediately bubbled over on whether or not the media were entitled to that time with Osaka at the detriment of her own mental wellbeing, especially after it was revealed that the 23-year-old experienced anxiety prior to her press availability, as well as bouts of depression. 

When the tournament announced it would be fining her $15 000 for her silence, the conversation intensified, but this time it was not only about Osaka, but the larger issue at hand. Finally, the sports world was talking about mental health. Sure, there were the dark recesses of Twitter filled with rhetoric that would make you doubt the good of humanity, but by and large the conversations were productive, open, and most of all hopeful of a time in the near future where athletes wouldn’t have to fear the vitriol that Osaka initially experienced when they felt ready to speak up on their struggles. 

We did see progress at the very next turn. This time, it was Simone Biles and her Tokyo Olympics that didn’t exactly go according to plan. After experiencing a case of the twisties, a lack of air awareness where the mind and body disconnect or a loss of muscle memory, during a vault, the unofficial poster woman of the Games withdrew from all but one of her individual event finals as well as ceded her spot in the team final to MyKayla Skinner. As the days continued to pass more and more was coming out about what exactly happened to Biles to cause the usual favourite to go through every gymnast’s nightmare. 

What was unveiled was nothing less than heart wrenching. 

Following her return stateside Biles gave a number of interviews, all with varying degrees of candor about what happened behind the scenes in Tokyo, but one statement sticks out above the rest:

“If you looked at everything I’ve gone through for the past seven years, I should have never made another Olympic team, I should have quit way before Tokyo, when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years. It was too much. But I was not going to let him take something I’ve worked for since I was 6 years old. I wasn’t going to let him take that joy away from me. So I pushed past that for as long as my mind and my body would let me.”

At first glance the first part of Biles’ statement seems to make no sense, how could someone with 32 medals and 4 elements named after her not have made an Olympic return?

Her sentiment encapsulates the wave entirely; that mental health is being put at the core of these conversations. Sure, physically she was all there, but for all of her God-given talent and meticulously trained skill, her mind was still the most important thing, and she made a brave statement by treating it as such. 

And from the tribute articles to thank-you Twitter threads, her message was being heard, the wave was breaking through. 

These two women rode the wave into the mainstream conversation. Even though they were the only two that were brave enough to surf it as it built, since then we have seen athletes across sports, across borders, and across genders find their legs and join forces to normalize the conversation of mental health. 

Sport psychologist Penny Werther, who works with some of Canada’s Olympians and Paralympians emphasized the importance of these kinds of conversations being had more and more often, saying that “it takes one or two brave souls to step up and say I’m struggling psychologically and I need some help. As more do it becomes more normal to do so and I don’t think it has been normal for years.”

One of the most recent athletes to join the conversation is one of those Canadian Olympians, Carey Price. The Montreal Canadiens announced he would be taking time away from the team to take part in the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. While his reasoning was never disclosed, his wife Angela’s statement on the matter included references to putting your mental health first and the example that the goalie is setting for his kids, as well as his whole audience. 

Price’s story comes on the heels of teammate Jonathan Drouin returning from a five month absence due to his battles with anxiety and insomnia. When Drouin left the team right before their shocking playoff run all that was revealed was that it was for personal reasons, but following his return he sat down with RDS’ Chantal Machabee and opened up about what really kept him off the ice. 

For those that don’t know, I have a wave tattooed on my ankle as a reminder that “the law of the wave is that it must recede.” It’s my own personal reminder that no matter how bad my mental illness may be right now, it has to get better. (Oh, I guess now would be a good time to mention I was diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety at 17.) So in a way, the idea of a wave has always been a scary thing. 

But thanks to these athletes, the tides have changed and the wave is now what will change the world. Their bravery in sharing their stories is a reminder that it’s never a bad time to be honest in needing help, there’s always someone that needs to hear this, and that the old school world is ready to be changed, so let’s crash this wave and promise that more will follow.

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