The Most Dangerous Opponent

Dealing With A Player’s Mental Health Is Every Bit As Important As Their Physical Well Being

 

Current NHLers Tyler Motte, Carey Price and Robin Lehner have all expressed their struggles with mental health. In addition, youth hockey players like Brennan Dethloff and Sophie Wieland were challenged to the point of sadly taking their own life by suicide as a result of their struggles. 

Physical toughness is often an expectation of hockey players, which is simply part of playing a contact sport. Yet, in an environment where that physical play is often encouraged, we fail to recognize the most dangerous opponent is not the team across from us at the faceoff, but the mental health crisis facing youth today. 

One in five youth experience a mental health concern every year. This means that on an average team of 15 players, it is likely that three of the players on your team will need mental health support in any given season. 

Who will be there for these athletes? Are we equipped, even with basic skills, to recognize the signs and symptoms of an individual experiencing a mental health challenge?

Participation in hockey, as with most sports, offers many benefits that may promote mental wellness, such as reduced stress due to the release of endorphins during physical activity, opportunities to develop greater confidence and resilience and improved social relationships. But often overlooked or misunderstood are those unique risk factors for mental health challenges brought on by involvement in sports. Risk factors can be minimized, but to do so, we must first understand what they are and be open to talking about how they may affect our hockey players.

 

Injury

In a game as physical as hockey, it’s only a matter of time before someone on the ice gets injured. When a hockey player is unable to participate in practices and games due to an injury, they may become isolated from their teammates/best friends, coaches and ultimately the sport they enjoy. This isolation may lead to mental health challenges as the once strong identity of a hockey player may be lost, even if only for a short period of time. Additionally, severe injuries with long-term repercussions may result in PTSD, thoughts of worthlessness or hopelessness and a player may be afraid of stepping back onto the ice for the fear of reinjury. 

 

Unrealistic Expectations

A second risk factor in sport can be unrealistic expectations placed on young athletes by themselves, their parents, coaches or teammates. Young hockey players are often asked to juggle academic and athletic expectations along with family, social and relationship time that has the potential to lead to burnout, depression, and other mental health concerns. When being shuttled between school, practice, strength training and off-ice team activities, our players lose control and input into how their time is spent. Add the fact that most hockey players travel for games nearly every weekend in-season and the significant demands on their time can increase stress and anxiety. 

 

Providing Support

These are two examples of how being involved in hockey could lead to a mental health challenge in a young athlete if we do not seek to mitigate the negative while reinforcing the positive factors present in a sporting environment. While we all wish to see our young athletes play their best, we also need to recognize when life challenges are bigger than the game and take action. Someone close to a struggling young athlete, like a coach or parent, might notice changes in behavior and can provide positive support structures to recovery, both physical and emotional.

 

What should we be looking for?

Identifying a mental health problem is challenging in the best of scenarios. On top of that, sport often stigmatizes mental and emotional challenges as weakness. So, we need to be listening to our young athletes and hear what they are saying. Checking in often with an athlete who might be going through a tough time is important and can have a huge impact on their path to recovery.

Some of the more common signs/symptoms in youth include:

 

Extreme irritability and mood swings 

Persistent feelings of worry/overwhelm/hopelessness/sadness or fear

Drastic change of appearance or neglecting physical hygiene 

Withdrawing from friends and activities they love

Significant change in eating habits and/or weight 

Unexplainable physical ailments such as headaches or stomachaches that have no physical origin

Engaging in unusually risky behavior

Increased use of alcohol or drugs

Talk of death or suicide 

 

Alone, many of these signs are something to take note of, but collectively, mental health support should be sought, particularly when these behaviors extend beyond a 2- or 3-week period.

If you happen to notice a number of these signs in an athlete, coach or parent, what can we do? First, recognize that we are not mental health experts, but we can be the first line of support, much like first aid/CPR to start the conversation and then help that individual get the support they need. If you have concerns about someone in your sport community, the following steps can help you start the conversation: 

Provide a safe non-judgmental space for conversation

Ask open-ended questions that allow them to speak (I have noticed you seem sad lately, is there anything you would like to talk about?)

Listen and make observations but avoid assumptions

Ask the tough questions, “Do you have thoughts of suicide?”

Let them know you will check in with them again, and follow up with that promise

Don’t be afraid to ask more than once

 

At the U.S. Center for Mental Health & Sport we are excited to work with USA Hockey to bring sport-specific mental health training programs to coaches, parents administrators and athletes. Our training program educates participants about common mental health signs and symptoms and seeks to provide information about appropriate pathways to community support.

Together we can decrease stigma and normalize protecting players’ mental wellness in the same way we protect physical wellness – and saving a life while having fun playing hockey can be the most important goals for us all.

 

Margaret Domka is a co-founder and executive director, Skye Arthur-Banning is a co-founder and director of research and development and Dawn Brady is an intern at the U.S. Center for Mental Health & Sport.
Issue: 
2022-05

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