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Supporting Mental Health in Hockey Culture

By Aaron Wilbur, The Coaches Site, 01/21/21, 2:30PM EST


Why it's just as important as the physical health for athletes

If there’s one thing we’ve realized during the last few months is that mental health is so important for our players. Often when we think of the mental aspects of hockey it involves grit, mental toughness and an old school mindset. What happens when the helmets and skates are back in the bag and players are back at home during the current pandemic?

Jessica Renney and Paula McQuaid are certified Canadian psychotherapists who bring academic, research-based approaches to their work. They are the co-founders MindfulAthletics and work with youth and adults in both individual and group settings. Specializing in the mental wellbeing of athletes, they created the HONE App as a digital platform for sport culture and performance and the opportunity for more accountability and collaboration between organizations, coaches, and athletes to better support our athletes' mental health.

The impact of missing sports as we do right now can go far beyond the actual goals and scoreboards. It’s the interacting with teammates, the physical engagement and developing the friendships.

“It’s awesome that we get to be able to have these conversations right now but the reality is this was there before the pandemic. Not even mental health but more specifically athlete mental health,” said Renney.

“The statistics are quite alarming around how many athletes are saying ‘I’m struggling with a mental health concern that’s impacting my capacity to perform’. What’s really alarming is that we’re only seeing a small number of those people get help, so they’re not reaching out.”

Sport teaches us resiliency, how to manage emotions and the ups and downs that come along over the course of a season. It’s not just about physical activity, it’s taking those lessons we learn from sports and applying it to our every day lives. When we don’t have that, we lose those opportunities and everyday scenarios to learn and practice those lessons. It’s can be worked on just like shooting and stickhandling.

“Coaches and administrators are in such an amazing position to provide that culture that supports mental health in their athletes,” said McQuaid. “They have an influence that few others have over young people and a tremendous power and opportunity to help shape how young people view mental health. Not just for themselves but for others as well.”

"We often shy away from having these conversations because we don't want to do it the wrong way. We know mental health is so important," said Renney. "I think what happens sometimes, and we see this with coaches all the time, is they want to help and want to be there and be supportive but they don't know how and don't know what to do."

We need to look at our players as kids first and athletes second and be okay with them struggling with pressure, criticism, connection and relationships.

“We have this tendency around mental health to complicate it. But if it was an injury we’re going to ask you if you’re hurting. The same goes for mental health,” said McQuaid. “Checking in with players around their lives, not just their sport, and talking openly about challenges that they may be dealing with. Normalizing struggles rather than penalizing and modelling that it’s okay to talk about things and we’re going to have these open discussions and being vulnerable is okay.”

Players should feel comfortable having these conversations if they need to. This is a time that hockey can take charge of supporting mental health. Our kids are the future leaders, coaches and volunteers of the sport and can shape the conversation now for tomorrow’s players.

“We’ll see our culture shift to one that is acceptance and belonging even if it goes against those kinds of traditional expectations of athletes.”

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Aaron is the Founder and CEO of The Coaches Site, the #1 online resource for hockey coaches, and also the host of the Glass & Out podcast. He is married with two boys, believes Major League is the best sports movie of all-time, is scared of heights and is mildly obsessed with the Alabama Crimson Tide football program.

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