What role will clinical psychologists play at the Canada Games?

In less than 28 days, the Summer Canada Games will begin in Winnipeg, Manitoba.   It is a first for our city and the timing could not be more perfect!  The games arrive to celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary and to mark 50 years since the games began in this country.  The games will start on July 28th, 2017 and will end on August 13th, 2017 with a closing ceremony at the Investor’s Group Field.  Sixteen sports will be represented at 150 sporting events. Sports will include everything from track to swimming, kayaking, biking, baseball, basketball, sailing, volleyball, etc. Think of any summer sport and quite likely, it will be represented at the games.  Beautiful new venues have been built to accommodate some of these sports.  For instance, a wonderful new mountain biking course has been constructed along McCreary Road out by FortWhyte Alive.   In addition, a fabulous new sports complex has been built on Pacific Avenue behind the Centennial Concert Hall called the “Sport for Life Centre”.   These will remain permanent structures in Winnipeg and will add to the facilities available to athletes in this city.  It is expected that 4,000 young athletes will be competing in the games; these will be the best of the best from each province across the country.   Some 0f those who make it to the podium, may well become our next Olympic Champions. The city is abuzz with preparations both for sporting events as well as a variety of multi-cultural events which will showcase some of the best performing artists in Canada.

For the first time in history, clinical psychologists will be joining the medical team as volunteers.  They will be working alongside physicians, nurses, chiropractors, physiotherapists, athletic therapists and other health professionals.  What sort of role is there for clinical psychologists at an event such as this?  To begin, there is a difference between sports psychologists and clinical psychologists.  Sports psychologists have always participated in athletic events as they specialize in working with athletes to help them prepare and improve their performance using such techniques as focusing, cognitive behavior therapy, and creative visualization.  Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, work with all kinds of populations and problems and will be on site to help athletes address a myriad of stressors that could occur during the games on a large scale level, a team level, and an individual level.  For instance, these psychologists must be prepared to offer critical incident stress debriefing in the event of possible large-scale crises.  Within a team context, support may be needed in a situation where injury or illness of a team member has compromised the entire team’s performance.  On an individual basis, clinical psychologists will be on site to offer psychological assistance to athletes for any number of stressful situations that might occur on the field of play or off.  With 4,000 athletes, many potential difficulties can occur requiring psychological and emotional support.  For instance, field of play stressors might include devastating loss, injury, illness, eating issues, depression, pain management, or sleeping issues.  Off field of play, a variety of stressors could occur such as the death of a friend, illness of family member, diagnosis of a sibling, financial difficulties at home, or any number of other possible unanticipated family crises.  Clinical psychologists will be on site and available throughout the games to assist with any and all of these kinds of emotionally taxing issues.

Even more importantly, however, the addition of clinical psychologists to the medical team at the games recognizes the enormous psychological pressures that all of our young athletes are under and the potential emotional toll that this can take on a young person’s life.  Imagine, if you will, the discipline, dedication, time and energy that goes into becoming an elite athlete.   Try to fathom being 17, 18 or 20 years old, having spent most of your adolescence and a good part of your childhood preparing for this moment; getting up in the wee hours of the morning to attend practice; spending time at the gym when all of your friends are out partying and having fun; foregoing free time, relationships and vacations in order to pursue your single-minded passion.  When such dedication begins at a young age, it can easily become your very identity and how you define yourself as a person.  People who know you begin to refer to you as just that: “She’s a competitive swimmer.”   “He’s an award-winning cyclist.”  Think about the pressure of expectation that these young people must experience.  Many, from the time they were young, were the stars at competitions, winning, again and again, both at a local level and provincial level and now all eyes are on them as the ones chosen to represent their province at this spectacular national event. Unfortunately, for the largest majority, anything but a gold will be deemed a failure.  What happens when they “lose” and what are the ramifications for them after the games are over?  Perhaps, we have been neglecting to consider the difficulty involved in our children’s ability to recover, regroup and move on with their lives?

When a young person enters into the competitive, elite arena whether as an athlete, dancer, musician or actor, mental health needs to be a primary concern.  While these very talented and high achieving athletes develop incredible skills at being able to focus, exercise self-discipline and perform with skill and poise, they also encounter many liabilities.  Having been a competitive pianist myself, I know what it is like to enter young adulthood with a floundering sense of self-identity, wondering who I was if not a pianist, and craving simply to have a “normal” life.  Only recently have elite athletes such as Clara Hughes courageously come out of the shadows to share with us and normalize some of the very common stressors and mental health concerns that elite athletes may encounter.  A six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, she is the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games.  She became the National Spokesperson for Bell Canada’s mental health initiative and the “Let’s Talk” campaign (  By sharing past struggles with depression, Clara has helped break down the stigma associated with mental illness and has opened our eyes to the fact that high-performance athletes need psychologists as key participants in their circle of support.  In her own words, “When you can close your mouth and open your ears and your heart and listen to a person, it is often the first step that allows them to know that they are not alone…” Thank you, clinical psychologists, for being willing to give so generously of your expertise and time to not only support those athletes who may encounter high impact specific stressors but also for being willing to be there to listen with understanding and concern to all our young athletes who may just want to talk.


  • Louise Townsend

    Very interesting…especially the differing functions of the sport vs clinical psychologist.

  • Dr. Merika Graham Skirko

    I agree with Louise that the distinction between the role of the sports psychologist versus the clinical psychologist is a very helpful one. It is heartwarming that people are finally recognizing that our mental health is an issue that affects us all. Life can be very stressful and there is no one of us who will escape its ups and downs. Humans are very complex, and it is a shame that the legacy of mental health was such a negative one for so very long. Just as we need to guard our physical health, we need to be aware of our psychic health as well, and protect it. No one should feel shame when we can’t cope well. It is part of being human.

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