Sports psychologists: Price will help end the stigma around mental health in sports

Sports psychologists: Price will help end the stigma around mental health in sports
Graham Hughes/Canadian Press via CBC News
Carey Price

No pain, no gain.

“What a terrible phrase that we’ve used for many years to describe our athletes,” Gordon Bloom says of the saying that’s been thrown around the sports world since the 1980s — and sums up a lot of what’s still wrong with sports.

Days after the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association announced Carey Price was entering the NHLPA assistance program, Bloom applauded the 34-year-old Montreal Canadiens goalie for helping shatter the stigma around mental health in sports.

“That culture definitely exists, and has existed for a hundred years and we haven’t really changed it,” said the professor of sport psychology at Montreal’s McGill University. “Athletes are expected to be human. And they’re expected to act tough and show no pain, and we’re only now starting to realize we have to take better care of them. This is a workplace environment, and we need to do a better job.

“Hockey is much the same as all the other sports, we’re all still in the dinosaur years, we have a long way to go.”

While there’ve been no details around Price’s leave, his wife Angela posted on Instagram about the importance of “putting your mental health first.”

The Habs goalie is the latest in a list to high-profile athletes, including superstars Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, to step away from their sport for mental health reasons.

Sport is inherently stressful, says longtime sport psychologist Penny Werthner, particularly when played at the highest level.

Athletes are asked to be excellent, often several nights a week, for months on end, with what can feel like the whole world watching.

“There is anxiety and stress that’s inherent in standing out there, putting yourself on the line and seeing if you can hit the ball or stop the puck,” said Werthner, who has worked with numerous Olympic teams for more than three decades.

“Every moment is another one of those. It’s not easy. And the more we see these athletes perform well . . . we think it’s easy, right?”

Sports messaging has long been “you’ve got to fight through it, you’ve got to be mentally tough, you’ve got to never give in,” Werthner said. If the price paid was poor mental health, athletes often suffered in silence.

“There is still a stigma around saying, ‘I can’t manage this anymore,’ which is really where we start to veer from mental health into mental illness is when we get stuck there,” Werthner said from her Calgary home.

Price stepping away to focus on his mental health is positive, she said, because “the more we talk about it, the more that macho-ness will dissipate, that you don’t have to suffer alone, you can actually get help.”

Mental performance coach Jean Francois Menard said to consider what the past year has been like for Price.

“The guy is a huge perfectionist, he makes it to the Stanley Cup final, which is an opportunity of a lifetime, you lose in the final, for anyone that’s hard to digest,” said Menard, whose clients include everyone from Olympic medallists to pro athletes to pop stars and circus performers.

“Also, last year was a very, very weird season for these NHL hockey players. They played so many games in so little time, they were all exhausted. Most of them are playing three, four games within five or six days,” Menard said.

Plus, Price is the father of three young kids. He underwent surgery in the summer. And the final finished in July and training camps opened in August, meaning little time off before the teams were back at it.

“And the reality is this guy has a responsibility as an NHL goaltender where you cannot make mistakes or else you’re gonna be crucified,” Menard said.

Menard added that in a market like Montreal — where Menard is also from — players are “constantly criticized” if they don’t play well.

“And when you do play well, the only thing we say is, ‘Well you get paid $12 million a year, so you’re supposed to play like that,”’ said Menard, author of “Train Your Brain Like an Olympian.” “So, think about anyone and put them in a situation I just described, I think anyone would need some help.”

The Player Assistance Program, started by the NHLPA and NHL in 1986, provides confidential counselling with a network of counsellors in each NHL city. Players are connected with professionals in the specific area in which they’re seeking help, including mental health, sleep issues, gambling, drinking, etc. There’s also a 1-800 number that players can call 24 hours a day.

The Price news comes on the heels of Habs teammate Jonathan Drouin revealing last month that he has suffered from anxiety and insomnia for years. He recently rejoined the team after a five-month break from hockey.

Former Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan got the NBA talking about mental health a few years ago, after a middle-of-the-night tweet that said “This depression get the best of me.”

He also posted a photo on Instagram of Heath Ledger’s “Joker” character with the words “the worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

DeRozan’s candidness about his depression reverberated around the NBA and led Cleveland forward Kevin Love to open up about his episodes of anxiety. The duo has been featured in NBA mental health campaigns.

The Tokyo Olympics will be partly remembered for the spotlight Osaka and Biles shone on mental health. Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam tennis champion, said she’d suffered from depression for years, while the American superstar gymnast Biles withdrew from several events due to the “twisties,” a dangerous disorientation in midair, saying she was going to “focus on myself, rather than push stuff under the rug.”

The backlash suffered by the two women showed that social media certainly hasn’t helped.

“These are probably the two most high-profile female athletes in the world right now, and the backlash they got was just terrible,” Bloom said.

Price received an outpouring of support from around the league. Former goalie Corey Hirsch, who has been vocal about depression that almost led to him taking his own life years ago, tweeted that he was “extremely proud” of Price.

“I hope more players feel safer to get help. I thank everyone on here that is showing Carey love and support. That’s how we will create change.”

Menard would like to see the language around mental health change. Why is a player being treated for a broken arm, but “getting help” for a mental health issue?

“I don’t like the concept of ‘getting help,”’ he said. “It’s getting resources based on a need.”

When an athlete suffers an injury, there’s a straightforward protocol for recovery, with general timelines.

“With anything related to the brain, it’s much more abstract, and it’s difficult to explain how much time it’s going to take,” Menard said. “And so, it drives me berserk when these people talk on the radio, asking ‘Well, how much time is he going to be gone?’ Hey, does it really matter? Can you just let the guy take care of himself?”

There have been clusters of suicides and sudden deaths of NHL players, including Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard in 2011. Rypien was 27 when he committed suicide after a history of clinical depression that included two leaves of absence during his career with the Vancouver Canucks. Boogaard was 28 when he died from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while recovering from a concussion. Belak committed suicide at age 35.

Lori Ewing/The Canadian Press

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