As Nola Mountain watches athletes competing in Pyeongchang over the next two weeks, the driven 14-year-old will have one thing on her mind: making it to the 2024 Summer Games in Paris as a member of the Canadian women’s softball team.
And this whiz kid from Surrey has a game plan to get there: Her sprinting trainer is Canadian relay gold-medallist Robert Esmie; Team Canada softball player Larissa Franklin is her hitting coach; and her private instructor is Douglas College softball head coach Michelle Bettles. Nola is on an American travel team, which is in Las Vegas this weekend for a tournament. She also plays for a competitive softball club from Cloverdale and was the youngest member of an all-star Canadian squad that recently played a dozen games against U.S. colleges.
But between the 80 hours of playing, practising and training for softball each month, Nola squeezes in some time to exercise her mind: She meets regularly with a sports psychologist, someone who ensures her mental health is as strong as her physical being.
“She has to do strength training and all these things, but if your mind isn’t in it, that can be the deal-breaker at high-level sports. At a certain point, everyone is talented and the thing that can define you might be the way you handle those types of tough choices, those challenges, the rejection, and frankly even the positives,” Nola’s mom, Natasha Mountain, said.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, these are kids playing sports, how tough can it be?,’ but it can be quite cutthroat.”
The Mountains, a middle-class family with two other children, have some extended-health benefits to help pay for the sports-psychology sessions, but have made it a priority to factor this expense into their monthly budget, so Nola has the mental tools to face adversity.
From handling criticism about her small stature to overcoming disappointing plays, Nola said this counselling has helped her “to focus and overcome mind battles and get through any tough times.”
“Just how to be the best person I can be on-and-off the field,” she said.
Some major sports organizations, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, have a team psychologist, as do several national teams, such as Swim Canada. But not all high-level competitors have access to a licensed psychologist with an expertise in sports, and it typically falls to the parents of young athletic prodigies to pay for this privately.
“There is some buy-in to this now, but by no means is it common. Nola literally is the only athlete (her age), that we know of, accessing that service on a committed basis,” Natasha Mountain said.
There is an oft-held belief that acknowledging psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders, may be disruptive to an athlete’s performance, says an academic article by two university professors in Australia, a country that’s been progressive in the training of sports psychologists.
“This myth is perpetuated by old-school sport cultures that reward athletes for silencing emotions and not showing signs of weakness. On the contrary, helping athletes acknowledge and address their psychological issues … may have an indirect positive influence on their sporting performances,” says the article in the Australian Psychological Society journal.
Those traditional beliefs are starting to be challenged as more athletic legends are speaking out about battling mental health. Clara Hughes, the much-loved, six-time Canadian Olympic medallist in cycling and speedskating, has openly discussed her long struggle with debilitating depression, and was the face of Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, a national mental-health campaign.
Nola is the client of Dr. Tricia Orzeck, a licensed psychologist with a specialization in sports. Orzeck brings a unique perspective to her work, as she was a competitive figure skater while a teen, and when older became a high-performance skating coach and an elite road cyclist while also competing internationally as a triathlete.
“Many children have left sport due to the complexity of mental-health issues left untreated,” said Orzeck, former chair of the sports-psychology section of the Canadian Psychology Association. “I’m able to work with the athletes and anticipate it, and develop what that weakness is and further any strengths. And this is not just about performance, it is about the individual — which, of course, impacts your performance as well.
“Maybe if we had more experts in the practice of psychology and mental health working with our athletes at earlier ages, we wouldn’t have these (mental-health) outcomes later on.”
Most athletes, like Nola, would be classified as low-risk, but Orzeck aims to stave off any potential instability caused by common worries in competitive sports: “You are never good enough, you are always critical about yourself and your performance … the pressures, navigating the system, selection, expectation.”
Add to this, Orzeck noted, that young athletes also grapple with the common challenges of adolescence, such as confidence issues, relationship problems and other teenage turmoil.
Child-psychiatrist Charlotte Waddell, director of Simon Fraser University’s Children’s Health Policy Centre, said that while she’s not an expert in sports, she believes there could be heightened mental-health pressures on kids involved in highly competitive sports.
“I do feel that there could be repercussions, for example anxiety, for young people not only around the immediate events themselves, but also associated with the many prior years of training and discipline that it takes to make it in sports at this level,” said Waddell, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Health Policy.
Orzeck convinced the 2016 B.C. Winter Games in Penticton that a sports psychologist should be a component of the on-site medical team. In that role, she offered psychological services to athletes across the province leading up to the Games, and at the event spoke with 248 competitors, 67 coaches and dozens of parents, either one-on-one or in groups. She hopes to play this role again in other major sporting events, but, in the meantime, continues to see many athletes in her private practice.
One of those patients is Brian Maxwell, who is ranked third in Canada in archery and hopes to represent his country in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. It was a “heavy hit” when he just missed qualifying for the 2016 Games in Rio, but with Orzeck’s guidance overcame the disappointment and focused on how to become even better at archery.
“With most solitary sports, so much of it is the psychology of how you deal with it, how you act in certain moments,” said Maxwell, who trains in Burnaby. “There are certainly roadblocks that stop you from performing your best — like self-doubt, or certain obsessions, certain things you tell yourself. It’s OK to treat the symptoms, but you have to treat the source.”
The 32-year-old was a mountain biker until he broke both wrists in a motorcycle accident. He needed a new sport that was less jarring, and became enamoured with archery while watching the 2012 London Olympics.
As Maxwell began to excel at his new sport, Orzeck helped him work through a “terrible habit” of constantly adjusting how he held his bow, even if there was nothing wrong with his shot.
“It was kind of like a nervous-twitch thing,” he said. “I was giving myself excuses so that, if I did poorly, then I could blame it on the change I’d made to how I was holding the bow. I needed to stop that. And I did.”
Last year, he fared well at several tournaments and was part of the national team that went to the recent World Cup in Mexico.
Archery Canada is based in Ontario, where the team has access to a psychologist; Maxwell pays privately to see Orzeck because he believes in-person counselling is more effective than long-distance therapy. He hopes the future will bring psychological support for all high-level athletes.
“If you don’t deal with these (mental-health) things you can’t achieve your highest-possible performance.”
Canada has performance consultants who do excellent work preparing athletes to persevere through their sport, but not all are qualified to also practise psychology, Orzeck said. Some countries, such as Australia, have comprehensive programs to produce licensed sport psychologists who can cover both mental training and mental health, but the Canadian education system is more complex — something Orzeck would like to see streamlined.
She knows she could have benefited from this type of help when she was a young athlete in the 1990s, coaching younger figure skaters to pay for her own professional training while also going to school.
“Our poor coaches had to deal with all of our psychological issues,” she said. “I wasn’t as confident in myself. I didn’t really have the support that I could have.”
Between the estimated 150 softball games that Nola will play in 2018, she will also make regular trips to see Orzeck. The middle-infielder, who has oodles of confidence and determination, says the psychologist has taught her to keep her composure during tricky situations — such as in a high-pressure game when she failed to catch the ball, which ricocheted off her glove.
“She had really helped me because recently we had been working on bouncing back from an error. So instead of getting down on myself, I grabbed the ball and I finished the play,” the Grade 9 student recalled.
Nola’s mother, who learned about sport psychologists after discovering the Canadian softball team had one, remains hopeful this service will expand to include younger athletes — long before they become Olympians.
“I do believe it is the way of the future,” Natasha Mountain said.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.</p