Canada rugby sevens members push for mental health literacy in sport

Being a professional athlete is physically demanding, but the constant pressure to be the best at the highest level can also be mentally demanding, with the latter still being overlooked.

So says Breanne Nicholas, who would be lying if she said she hasn’t had any bad times in her career. The co-captain of Canada’s women’s rugby sevens team says athletes of her caliber are known for putting on a brave face for the field even when they weren’t where they needed to be that day.

“Sometimes you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to bring that into the team or into the training environment, so you either fill it up or look elsewhere for help,'” Nicholas said.

As high-level performers, they also have to endure injuries at some point, and those sometimes months-long recoveries can take even more toll on an athlete’s mental state, she said.

“You think, ‘Well, if I’m not performing, if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do, then what’s my purpose?’

That’s why the squad of seven have put a focus on mental health as Nicholas said they’ve created the freedom to speak more openly about these issues.

“At the end of the day, we are the people first.”

Nicholas and Jack Hanratty, head coaches of the Women’s Sevens, are mental health ambassadors for the Coaching Association of Canada’s new Sport Resource Hub, which aims to empower coaches across the country with mental health knowledge. Funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the center aims to serve all sports as many return to the pitches amid a slowing pandemic that has impacted people’s mental health.

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For a long time, Hanratty said the norm in sport was that athletes needed “mental toughness” to be successful. He hopes to transition to a system that promotes his athletes’ competitive thirst alongside and through mental well-being.

His interest in mental health first aid arose from the days he was coaching players ranging in age from their mid-teens to early twenties.

“You basically see the ups and downs and we started to be like, ‘How are you doing and can we help?'” Hanratty said. “We noticed then that many of our players actually answered, ‘Yes, I’m actually not fine.'”

The coaching team then reached out to mental health counselors and associations across Canada to learn more about asking if someone is okay, how to process that information, and what to do with it. With his Canada team group, Hanratty now conducts check-ins with players at the beginning and end of each week and has the team do a morning wellness exercise.

The multi-faceted approach aims to provide players with a safe point of contact to report issues, whether they’re comfortable with a face-to-face conversation or not. Hanratty said it’s an incredibly discouraging and intimidating thing for athletes to ask for help, and he hopes the new national center for mental health will give coaches the right resources if players want to confide in them.

“Recently athletes have said that just knowing that information is being viewed, discussed and acted upon is just a safe space unto itself,” said the rugby coach.

Jack Hanratty has initiated a number of mental health support programs as the head coach of Canada's women's rugby sevens team.  (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

Jack Hanratty has initiated a number of mental health support programs as the head coach of Canada’s women’s rugby sevens team. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

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The hub will also provide resources for coaches who take on the extra burden of trying to support athletes.

“[It’s important to do]a little checklist about how I feel about myself and whether I’ve put myself in a good mindset to create the safe environment that we strive for every day,” Hanratty said.

The conversation about mental health in sports recently hit the small screen, as it’s a driving theme of Emmy-winning comedy Ted Lasso.

“We all know someone or have been someone who has struggled, who has felt isolated, who has felt anxious, who has felt alone,” series star Jason Sudeikis said during a visit to The White this week A house. “It’s actually one of the many things that … we all have in common as human beings, and that means we can and should all talk about it with one another.”

A big theme of the show is asking neighbors, colleagues, friends or family how they are, continued the actor, who plays a football coach.

“While that’s easier said than done, we also need to know that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help ourselves. And that takes a lot, especially when it’s something that has such a negative stigma.”

Nicholas hopes to remove that stigma in sport and raise awareness about mental health. While she said that once they’re on the field, nothing else matters, bagging stuff eventually catches up to players, but they don’t have to carry that burden.

“If we make it that it’s not at that point, then we shoot at it.”

Canada women's rugby sevens team co-captain Breanne Nicholas and head coach Jack Hanratty are ambassadors for a new national mental health center for coaches and athletes.  (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

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Canada women’s rugby sevens team co-captain Breanne Nicholas and head coach Jack Hanratty are ambassadors for a new national mental health center for coaches and athletes. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

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