Photo : Mauricio Paiz/Tennis Canada
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month and in conjunction with the launch of Tennis Canada’s revamped Mental Timeout Initiative supported by Beneva, we spoke with Dr. Sommer Christie, a Certified Mental Performance Consultant for Tennis Canada, to put together a four-part article series about the importance of mental health, both in tennis and in life.
It’s well-documented that there are still many misconceptions about mental illness and how it impacts each individual. The truth is that people can still be highly functional in every aspect of their everyday life even with a diagnosis. In sports, the state of an athlete’s mental health doesn’t always negatively impact their performance even though it certainly can and that only adds to the stigma while also discouraging them from being open about their struggles. Even if an athlete can perform to their potential with mental health issues just like Andre Agassi did for so long, that doesn’t mean they are happy or have the necessary support to help them through challenging times. Perhaps they are simply going through the motions without getting any real enjoyment from their craft.
Dr. Sommer Christie explains that tennis isolates its top players as an individual sport and creates a feeling of loneliness which can be damaging to their mental health. It’s all-consuming and doesn’t allow for a well-balanced lifestyle. The pressures of competition are different as the athletes are playing for points and prize money at a young age. Plus, they must decide whether to turn pro early on and it’s often a decision they aren’t ready to make.
Christie stresses the importance of not forcing mental skills and mental toughness on young players. It’s crucial for parents and coaches to discuss losses, what can be learned from the experience, and how they can get better.
“Coaches learn how to correct mistakes. You’re doing this wrong is the default setting,” said Christie. “But if they’re not seeing what’s going well and continuing to work on their strengths, they’re ultimately just knowing that they did something wrong. It’s important to also reinforce what they do right to help their growth mindset. Coaches need to allow for teaching moments in drills and practices.”
Earlier this season during an on-court interview at the Miami Open, Bianca Andreescu, who has become an inspiring mental health advocate since going public with her struggles, admitted that during the peak of her career in 2019, she didn’t feel like she belonged at the top of the women’s game even though her results said otherwise. Christie says that imposter syndrome is all too common.
“I can’t tell how many athletes feel that way. The ones you least expect to feel that way absolutely do because they haven’t been taught to recognize their success,” Christie said. “If you’re only recognizing what you’re not doing, you’re not focused on what you can do. Building more self-awareness is important. If I say this is what I want to reach and I keep getting closer to it, but because perfection is my goal, it keeps going away. So, I am getting better and better, but I am never perfect.”
Curing imposter syndrome is about eliminating distorted thinking patterns, identifying irrational thoughts, challenging them, and then reframing them to something reaffirming and positive. Andreescu believing she didn’t belong was an irrational thought that she has managed to flip around in such a way that she now feels comfortable on the court and can enjoy competing in the spotlight again.
Mental health and athletic performance are intrinsically linked, but they aren’t always dependent on one another. Still, the right frame of mind is needed to feel whole both as a person and as a professional.