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‘It’s OK not being OK’: Even the most successful stars of sport face mental health challenges

Elite athletes are known for being tough as nails, focused and determined to overcome all obstacles.

Having said that, athletes are not indomitable. It can be tough to reconcile that even the most successful stars of sport grapple with their mental health.

Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu and Olympic cycling gold medallist Kelsey Mitchell reached the ultimate height in each of their sports, but both have endured mental health challenges on their respective journeys to stardom.

For Andreescu, it all started after her monumental win at the U.S. Open in 2019.

More than three million Canadians watched the then-teenager defeat American legend Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows, becoming the first Canadian to win a major singles title.

WATCH | Andreescu makes history with U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams:

 

Match Wrap: Andreescu makes history with U.S. Open victory over Williams

Featured VideoBianca Andreescu becomes the first Canadian in history to win a Grand Slam singles title with her straight-set victory over Serena Williams.

People started recognizing her more, there were mountains of social media engagement, injuries and then, of course, COVID. She didn’t play the sport she loved for more than a year.

“Being away from the sport was really, really hard for me and there were just so many ups and downs,” the 22-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native told CBC Sports in a wide-ranging interview around Mental Health Awareness Month.

‘I didn’t love myself’

The end of the 2021 season is when things started to get really bad. That’s when she knew she needed to take a mental break.

“Basically, I didn’t want to hear about tennis. I didn’t want to look at tennis,” she said. “I remember texting my friends and my family, not to mention anything about tennis because … I just wanted to quit because I didn’t love the game anymore, and a lot of it was because I didn’t love myself.

WATCH | Andreescu opens up about her mental health journey:

 

‘I didn’t love the game anymore’: Andreescu opens up about her mental health journey

Featured VideoBianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, joins Anastasia Bucsis to chat about her story in conjunction with the release of ‘The Real Me’ series on the WTA’s YouTube channel.

“I started identifying myself to the wins, to the losses. I started reading negative comments and those were getting into my head. It definitely hasn’t been easy, but I am in a better place now.”

Mitchell’s climb in her sport of track cycling has been remarkable, going from a university soccer player who’d never owned a bike to one of the most dominant sprinters in the world in just four years.

After her win at the Tokyo Olympics, the 29-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta., kept racking up the medals at Commonwealth Games, Nations Cup and Champions League.

Everything was running smoothly, until it wasn’t. Signs of mental and physical strain were lingering. She first noticed something wasn’t right at the world championships in October 2022.

She had never won worlds and its coveted rainbow jersey, and as reigning Olympic champion, people kept coming up to her saying it was her year.

“But I didn’t perform. I felt alone and exposed at that moment,” she said.

Mental exhaustion

She pushed on with her training, switching her training base from Milton, Ont., to Los Angeles and back again. She and her boyfriend, former national team member Hugo Barrette, went their separate ways (they had been through the Olympic journey together). She rebuilt her support team. She struggled through the worst results of her career at a Nations Cup in Jakarta in February. She got really sick and fatigued with COVID.

Mitchell was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted.

“I’ve never experienced that before. I honestly think my greatest strength as an athlete is my mental health and my mindset,” Mitchell said. “I’m motivated every single day. I’m so grateful. I take every opportunity I can to get better, but I was crashing and burning. My body couldn’t train.

“The one thing that made me so happy, I couldn’t do because I had no energy, emotionally I was so frustrated and mentally I wasn’t getting that escape. It was really tough. I wanted to go home.”

An increasing number of athletes are shedding light on the challenges they face in order to help highlight that mental health is just as important as physical health — if not more.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time with a total of 28 medals, opened up about his mental health struggles in the documentary, The Weight of Gold.

Soccer goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé, whose heroics helped Canada win gold at the Tokyo Olympics, revealed in FIFPRO’s Are You Ready To Talk campaign that she “basically spent the 48 hours following the final lying in a dark room.” She couldn’t train for part of the Games because of “high levels of anxiety and multiple panic attacks.”

From gymnastics icon Simone Biles to tennis star Naomi Osaka to NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, the conversations around mental health are incredibly vulnerable and help change the narrative.

Andreescu, at first, didn’t want to accept that she was feeling down.

“I thought that I could just push through it,” she said. “Us athletes, we kind of learned to just push through things, whether it’s mentally or physically, injury wise. So that was kind of my default.”

Turns out it wasn’t healthy. She credits her parents for helping her through the tough moments, especially her mother, Maria.

Andreescu, who was featured in the WTA and Modern Health docuseries, The Real Me, where she speaks candidly of her struggles with mental health, now uses daily meditation practice and gratitude exercises to keep her grounded.

For Mitchell, it’s taken a few months to feel more like herself again and in April, at the Nations Cup on her home track in Milton, she took home the gold in the sprint.

“I needed that,” she said from Oakville, Ont., where she is training for the world cycling championships Aug. 3-13 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Mitchell leaned on her family, too. Mother Val came to stay with her when she was at her lowest and she credits her friendship with teammate Lauriane Genest for helping her overcome the tough moments.

“I’ve grown so much in the past year as a person, it’s insane. How much I’ve learned about people and myself and what it’s like to go through the ups and downs and the mental struggle. I’m coming out of it way stronger for sure.”

WATCH | Competitors to best friends — Mitchell, Genest share special bond:

 

Competitors to Best Friends: Canadian cyclists Mitchell, Genest share a special bond

Featured VideoOlympic medallists Kelsey Mitchell, Lauriane Genest reflect on their friendship and some incredible moments in their pursuit of becoming two of the world’s best track cyclists.

Mental health affects everyone and the more people talk about it, the more it’s normalized, says Mitchell, who pointed out resources like the Coaching Association of Canada’s Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub.

“I’m not a super open person. I don’t like showing emotion … but it’s nice to know that other people struggle and you’re not alone in that.”

Andreescu agrees.

“It’s OK not being OK. We all have bad days, we all have bad weeks, months, whatever it is. But there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”

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