Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Tennis Canada and uOttawa serve up mental health partnership

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Depression and anxiety issues have impacted tennis stars including Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka.

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Tennis Canada has teamed up with the University of Ottawa on a comprehensive plan to enhance the mental health of its athletes.

Recognizing the need for a layered, structured and well-researched approach to help with the inherent pressures and anxiety that come with competing at the highest levels of the sport, the model is based on the Mental Health Strategy for High Performance Sport in Canada.

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The stress that comes with life at the top has gained international attention during the past few years, highlighted by former world No. 1 player Naomi Osaka and Canada’s Bianca Andreescu talking openly about depression and anxiety issues.

After Andreescu won the 2019 U.S. Open — the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title — she struggled with the suddenness of fame, ultimately taking a hiatus from playing.

“Looking back now, I know that I did not have enough love for myself outside of just being a tennis player,” Andreescu has since said. “I felt like I was basing so much of my self-worth on results. I was confused. I was shocked, overwhelmed. I had no idea what to do. As hard as it sounds, I wanted to quit the sport. I had no love for the game whatsoever, so at that point (was) when I took my mental break.”

Tennis Canada launched the Mental Timeout project in 2022, initiating conversations with uOttawa Human Kinetics professor Dr. Natalie Durand-Bush, who also serves as executive director of the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport.

Durand-Bush has since worked closely with Mikaela Papich, a PhD candidate at the school, in researching and documenting how to better support the tennis community.

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“We want to make sure the athletes are protected first and foremost,” said Papich, a former U.S. Division I tennis player herself. “There has been a culture predominantly focused on performance. There should be more focus on the human being.”

Papich knows the subject first-hand. A Montreal native, she says her own career was hampered by depression and injury issues.

“I had issues with walking and sleeping, and I ultimately needed surgery at 18,” she said. “My injury wasn’t taken seriously … Playing with pain is not normal. It’s not about resilience. I was hurting myself.”

For years, elite athletes have increasingly employed sports psychologists to help, but Durand-Bush says Tennis Canada has taken it a step further, fully engaged in a “top to bottom” leadership effort to help its players prepare for the mental hurdles that could arrive along the way.

“A lot of people pay lip service to mental health,” she said. “But, at the end of the day, many don’t know how to promote this and how to implement concrete strategies. It’s easy to talk about, but what is happening on the ground on an everyday basis?”

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When the most promising young players arrive at the national training centre in Montreal, some as young as 15 or 16, the program will offer more than practice on forehands and backhands.

They will also receive individual and workshop mental skills training in how to deal with on-court success and failures, with regular checkpoints along the way.

Social media attention has added another dimension and some tennis players have been subject to body shaming from anonymous commentators.

“We want to make (players) aware of what could happen,” said Valerie Tetrault, a member of Tennis Canada’s mental health task force. “We will have professors and experts that they are able to talk with.”

Tetrault says it can be a lonely sport, and she says it makes sense for Tennis Canada to invest to make sure “athletes have everything they need to have the optimal and physical and mental preparation” to succeed.

It doesn’t stop with the players, either. Tennis Canada will ensure that coaches and parents are on board, and can also recognize when a young player might be struggling with anxiety or depression.

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Papich says there’s a fine line between encouragement and overwhelming pressure.

“It’s an expensive sport,” said Papich. “Some parents see it as an investment, but whose dream is it? Everyone wants to support the player, but sometimes they add additional stress.”

Durand-Bush says the stories of Osaka and Andreescu have helped take the topic of mental wellness, once hidden in the shadows of sport, to the forefront. She also recognizes that it will never completely disappear.

“No matter what we do, some people are going to still struggle, but we’re just trying to equip people with as many skills and knowledge as possible, as we know this has a protective effect, and we’re trying to give them access to people who are legitimately qualified to do this.”

kwarren@postmedia.com

X: Citizenkwarren

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