Tool eyes mental health, wellness of athletes

Plympian Dr. Jane Thornton stand with oar on shoulder among the boats

Special to Western NewsAs a sports medicine physician at Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic, Dr. Jane Thornton has co-developed a new tool that looks to address the mental-health and wellness challenges of elite athlete struggling only days after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games.

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Only days after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games, elite athletes around the globe are still acclimating to their new reality – and, for many, the adjustment will be difficult. Health concerns. Loss of direction. Absence of teammates.

As a sports medicine physician at Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic, Dr. Jane Thornton has seen these challenges play out not just in Olympians, but in athletes gunning for scholarships, a place on a national team, or who had important competitions cancelled.

In response, Thornton collaborated with sports psychiatrist Dr. Carla Edwards to create a wellness resource for athletes. The tool, Athlete mental health and mental illness in the era of COVID-19: shifting focus with a new reality, is available for free online.

“When things were still uncertain – and, to a large degree, they still are – I was seeing athletes come in with various concerns ranging from anxiety to depression. They didn’t know what was going to happen to their athletic careers,” Edwards said.

“This was happening in youth and teenagers all the way up to the adult population. I knew that if patients were coming to me, there must others who weren’t seeking professional help who were struggling.”

The resource provides practical advice for athletes, while normalizing their feelings and stressing the importance of connection.

At the baseline, Thornton and Edwards recommend that athletes focus on controlling what they can control by shifting their ‘short game’ goals to focus on nutrition, sleep, self-care and activities that make them feel good. They also stress the importance of staying connected and reaching out for supports.

“Maintain human connection. Maintain a community,” said Edwards, who is encouraged by teams she sees coming together in virtual environments. “There is also the importance of maintaining some semblance of structure in their day.”

Thornton is a former Olympian who represented Canada in rowing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“For me, it took about 10 years to be able to represent Canada on the Olympic stage. You do learn a lot about resilience and a lot of other great qualities when participating in sport. But on the other hand, it can get to be all-consuming, if that’s the only thing you are focused on.”

Thornton and Edwards are sharing the resource through social media and have sent it to Canadian sports organizations across the country.

“The response has been really positive,” Thornton said. “What we’re going through right now is bigger than any competition. The amazing part of sport is that it brings people together regardless of where they are. Hopefully, this will prompt even more resources to help our athletes maintain a sense of normalcy during this time.”