The mental challenges an athlete faces is always difficult, but it is a reality that every athlete has to face. After overcoming those barriers over their athletic career they reach a new stage by moving into the work force.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY STEVE SETO
The lights are flashing as the large crowd grows in the stadium as you prepare for one of your childhood dreams. As the crowd continues to cheer, you get goosebumps as you have worked so hard to get to this point. You hit the field and the adrenaline has the hair on the back of your neck standing up from excitement. The chemistry between you and your teammates feels so natural and everything seems to be going in your favour.
Once the game ends you could not be happier about how you played, the team won and you contributed to it.
You think you played one of the best games of your life and you come off feeling satisfied as it may have been one of the best games of your career. When you arrive back in the locker room your coach tells you what you can improve on and how you didn’t perform to your full potential.
It is a heart-wrenching moment as the world falls on your shoulders.
You realize that maybe this is not for you and time to move onto the next step. After you’ve performed the best game of your career, someone could give such hard criticism.
One of the most memorable parts about growing up is getting a chance to play your favourite sport. Spending the hours practicing for the anticipation and adrenaline of competing against your opponents to show off what you had been working so hard on can be so gratifying.
What most fans see is what is shown on the outside, the focus and determination to compete at the highest level. The biggest challenge though can be what is going on in the athlete’s mind and overcoming the amounts of pressure that is placed on them to succeed.
Sometimes the pressure is not even on how you performed, it’s about how you carry yourself off the field or even at times how you look and that can be mentally exhausting.
As an adult you are able to overcome some of those challenges and look past the devastating comments about how critical a coach can be. That is not always the case when it comes to young athletes finding out the true competitiveness of being an elite athlete.
“When I got to about 16 or 17 and going through puberty and all that stuff, all of those little factors started to kind of get me,” said Adriana Desanctis who competed nationally as a figure skater throughout her childhood. “Injuries started and when you’re injured you put on a little bit of weight because you aren’t working out. So then you hear all the little feedback about your body issues and that becomes a big detriment.”
The focus around mental health in professional athletes has been a media focus over the last few years, but the same cannot be said for athletes who are getting their first taste in competition.
“It doesn’t matter how thick your skin is, it doesn’t matter that stuff is personal. When you’re on the ice it’s a sport about perfection. So it’s not just leaving it on the ice, you take that home with you and it affects you. It’s draining. It doesn’t necessarily pull you away, but it distracts you from your goal,” said Desanctis.
It can get to the athlete enough where they are forced to stop playing and going through the mental fatigue to focus on another career. That aspect can be even tougher when you go through the daily routine of performing every day, it can be hard to place attention on things other than sports.
“It was kind of frustrating and in a bad mood all day because you don’t really know what I’m doing at the time. Am I going to soccer? Am I going to golf? Am I going to basketball? Am I doing school? And it was just so much. It gets overwhelming and you don’t want to do any of it anymore,” said Taylor Jetten, locker coordinator with the Lethbridge College Students’ Association.
Jetten played three sports while attending Lethbridge College and felt enough pressure that he had to step back at times to take an overlook at where he was in his career.
“It’s nice to have a level head who is kind of not in the situation and just calm me down and talk to you like, you’re going to get through it,” said Jetten who was fortunate enough to have his family close by when he needed an extra hand.
When athletes are at a young age performance is at a peak, but it is also the time where they are most vulnerable to mental health issues.
“For me I was really lost and I didn’t have a whole lot of self-worth because I was like ‘You know what, I’m not a high level athlete, what are people going to look at me as?’ and that definitely took a toll.”
In a study by Alan Ringland he found almost 75 percent of mental health difficulties first emerge between the ages of 15 and 25. “The peak years for elite sport performance overlap with the period where the risk of mental health disorders are highest.”
Getting the dialogue started is key to making sure someone can assess the person who may be tackling tough challenges.
“A lot of things is just having a conversation with the athlete, you can tell just by their energy levels on how their talking about their experience in their sport. So are they committed to they’re training? Are they bringing great effort in their training? How’s their attitude towards training? How are they assessing their performances? Are they showing up? A lot of different signs and it’s different for everybody, but you can definitely start putting the puzzle together and start making some assessments on the situation,” said Mental Performance Consultant Joshua Hoetmer with the Alberta Sport Development Centre.
It is starting to become more of a trend now that athletes are opening up and receiving a second opinion to make sure they are playing to the best of their abilities.
“I’m seeing a lot of athletes becoming interested to start training their mind. To handle situations better, prepare better, to handle stressful situations better. So I’m starting to see an acceptance of sport psychology as becoming a normal thing you need to do,” said Hoetmer.
When athletes are able to reach a professional level, they are given the support and funding they need to be mentally ready. What needs to be focused on more at the grassroots level is making sure we are not pushing our young athletes to the point of mental exhaustion.
“A big thing is the perspective of the whole mental side of being an athlete and that awareness is great, you have world-class athletes talking about it,” said Hoetmer who sees some of the negative effects if mental health is not addressed.
Mental health should never be taken lightly and the conversation does not need to be focused on one day of the year, but constant and ongoing with young athletes.
It can also be tough when an athlete realizes the time has come to switch gears in their athletic career and move forward onto a different path. It can be tough to have sports be a secondary item on their daily itinerary.
“For me sports was always the thing, but I always wanted to have a backup plan. I’m never ready for sports to end, that’s why I’m coaching two sports this year,” said Jetten.
That motivation to stick around sports does not fall too far away, as once the athletic career is over, turning to the next page often relates to staying in that environment.
“I love being around athletes, I love the culture, I love the competitiveness. So I decided to go to university, which I always planned. It was either going to be working with athletes on a medical level or with athletes in a broadcasting media field,” said Desanctis.
But getting on the right track was not an easy first step, it can be slightly of a culture shock.
“For me I was really lost and I didn’t have a whole lot of self-worth because I was like ‘You know what, I’m not a high level athlete, what are people going to look at me as?’ and that definitely took a toll,” said Desanctis.
Getting away from the sport mentally and physically is sometimes a must in order to reset on what direction an athlete’s next step is.
“I love sports so much that for me when I was done playing I took three or four months off from really doing any sports. Not coaching, not playing, just kind of reevaluating myself and now what’s my next step in my life,” added Jetten.
It can sometimes feel like you are starting a new athletic career to get that rush back. Finding that adrenaline you once had when hitting the field showing what you are capable of.
The lifestyle change can be tough and adds another mental challenge that some people are not ready to face so quickly after ending their athletic career. Focusing more time and energy on the mental side of athletes when they are at the beginning stages of being an athlete could be beneficial once they move into a working career.