Each speaker drew from their own experiences to discuss mental wellness. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The Varsity Blues Basketball Excellence program hosted a mental health panel at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport on October 29 with Toronto Raptors guard Fredderick VanVleet along with Brittni Donaldson, and Jarred Dubois among others. The speakers discussed their relationship with mental health on a day-to-day basis, and how they have learned to interact with others while keeping mental health in mind.

VanVleet’s personal growth

VanVleet spoke about the challenges that he faced growing up and the evolution of his relationship with his own mental health. Growing up, VanVleet faced a lot of personal troubles, which he said he needed to block out due to the expectation of “mental toughness” in his basketball career. He said that mental health was not something that he felt he had to deal with, especially when his whole life was revolving around basketball.

“But it wasn’t until I had kids that I really started thinking about what that means for me as a person and what my parents passed down to me, what I’m able to pass down to them,” said VanVleet. “You just start thinking… ‘how do I better myself and better the people around me so that we’re not passing down destructive emotions, feelings, thought processes,’ whatever the case may be. So you took the flip from ‘okay, I have to be mentally tough’ when I’m playing a game, but also what does that mean for me as a man, as a father, as a son to pass that on to my kids so they have a clean slate.”

He said that he needed to revisit a lot of personal trauma that he hadn’t dealt with, and thought back on certain experiences that shaped him into the man he is today. VanVleet stressed the importance of having conversations about mental health, and passing on these conversations onto the younger generation.

The difficulty of discussing mental health in sports

Brittni Donaldson, Assistant Coach of the Toronto Raptors, who played four seasons for the University of Northern Iowa basketball program, discussed her personal difficulties in being asked to leave her emotions aside in athletic settings. “Mental toughness is a term that’s used almost daily in our environment and what it means in the environment of basketball and [other] sports is suppressing any sort of emotion or feeling,” Donaldson said. “Putting [them] on the back end in order to complete the task that’s in front of you.”

She said that this not only applies to her emotional state, but her physical pain as well. “You’re kind of conditioned as an athlete to just push through those types of things or just ignore them completely in order to complete the task at hand,” she continued. “For me personally that manifests itself in a physical form. I played collegiate basketball and every day [I] was preached to about mental toughness. If you weren’t mentally tough, you weren’t going to play.”

“I ended up pushing myself so far away from my inner dialogue and the things that were going on in my body and my mind that I was playing through injuries and not even realizing it. And it got to a point where I had to have reconstructive leg surgery and to be told I could never play again for me to realize [that] I’m that far away from my inner dialogue and what my body, my mind is telling me.”

Getting the discussion started early

Jarred Dubois, Assistant Coach for the Detroit Pistons and Founder of the non-profit organization, Everyone Has a Story, spoke about how he wanted to make sure young athletes at his kids camp were receiving proper help. “We started with bringing in mental wellness professionals to speak to the parents,” Dubois explained.

“We all know that a lot of parents — especially in youth sports — are very forceful in trying to get kids to perform at a high level. You’ve got to be the next Fred, you’ve got to be the next ‘this person’ or ‘that person.’ Every player can’t be the next NBA star. And the psychological breakdown of [that on] a child takes a toll.”

He went on to explain that many kids who go through traumatic experiences do not know how to process their emotions and are often given inadequate resources to deal with them. He wanted to have a way to listen to and connect with other people with similar experiences, which is why he started his non-profit, which hosts other similar panel discussions, and intends to “promote compassion for others one story at a time.”

“Understanding [that a lack of communication] was the case for me and my story and I wish that I had something like this where I could come and listen to people who I could connect with, people who do things that I’m engaged with from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of expertise,” DuBois continued. “And so I created this panel process.”

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