the huddle philosophy

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Our Philosophy: Changing the Culture of Varsity Sport

Student-athletes face immense pressures including performing simultaneously in school and sport, managing finances, a social life and family life. It is problematic to assume that the status of “athlete” automatically equips these individuals with an innate resilience to these stresses. It is also dangerous to assume that the mental health problems that affect 1 in 5 Canadians do not also affect student-athletes.

SAMHI is about breaking down these assumptions by educating Canadians about the vulnerabilities of student-athletes, promoting the wellness of all student-athletes, and supporting student-athletes who may suffer from a mental health concern or illness.

The Issues

Post-secondary student-athletes experience mental health concerns at the same rate as regular university students (Reardon & Factor, 2010). However, the culture of varsity sport and its various elements can exacerbate issues, deter help-seeking behaviour and ultimately lead to crisis situations.

Currently, university student-athletes can typically access mental health services via three main means: university/campus counselling services center, athletic department (i.e., in-house psychologists), and outside therapists/consultants (Chew & Thompson, 2014). However, communication and service provision gaps between counselling and athletic departments have been identified (Chew & Thompson, 2014; Pinkerton, Hinz, & Barrow, 1989). Perhaps this would not be overly problematic if all university athletic departments were well-equipped with qualified mental health professionals; however, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case.

In fact, isolating student-athletes to one reference group (i.e., athletics) could discourage them from developing an identity and support outside of sport (Lopez & Levy, 2013), and promote the idea that student-athletes are different and detached from the general university student population. While this sub-population has unique needs and challenges given the demands they must manage in both their academic and sport contexts, perpetuating this distinction fuels the myth that the mental health concerns of regular students are not be observed in student-athletes. This could potentially lead to harmful self-stigma, which is a major barrier to help-seeking (Vogel, Wade, & Heckler, 2007).

The fear of being stigmatized and penalized by teammates and coaches is a major barrier to help-seeking for student-athletes (Brewer, Van Raalte, Petipas, Bachman, & Weinhold, 1998; Linder, Brewer, Van Raalte, & DeLange, 1991; Watson, 2005). Additionally, student-athletes may not seek professional help from their university counselling centre due to their perception of counsellors’ inability to relate to their role and lifestyle as athletes (Lopez & Levy, 2013; Watson, 2005).

Chew and Thompson (2014) recommend that within campus settings, collaboration between athletic and counselling departments should, “[not…] create a specialized service for student-athletes but rather […] identify what is available and ways to make referral easier and more user-friendly on both sides” (p. 98).

Student-athletes also face physical prejudice in sport through the “mental toughness” ideal, which can lead to compromised mental health when performance is prioritized over student-athletes’ well-being. Schwenk (2000) noted: “The current conceptualisation of and approach to mental illness in athletes is fraught with stigmatisation, denial, and dichotomous paradigms of “psychological” versus “physical” disease, which are inaccurate, unhelpful, and deprive the athlete of effective care” (p. 4). As an example, NFL wide receiver Ricky Williams gave a candid description of such an occurrence when he struggled alone with a debilitating mental health issue:

“When it’s a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it’s OK. When it’s a broken soul, it’s like a weakness” (Wertheim, 2010, para. 4).

When Williams went to a coach requesting psychological help, the coach reportedly responded with, “Stop being a baby and play football” (Wertheim, 2010, para. 3). This example illustrates the discrimination athletes of all levels can face when attempting to seek help for mental health issues.

Huddle Framework

To address these issues and ultimately answer the question, “Whose responsibility is student-athlete mental health?”, we are working within what we call the Huddle Framework. As you will see in our logo, there are 5 pieces – each of which represents a key-player. Each player in the huddle will have a role and voice with a responsibility to make the culture of varsity sport safer for student-athletes. These players will include student-athletes, coaches and integrated support team, representatives of individual academic institutions, governing bodies in sport and the families and friends of athletes.

SAMHI’s role is to be the driver behind multi-organizational, cross-disciplinary, system-wide engagement that will  foster greater ownership and generate feasible solutions to create sustainable social and political change within the culture of Canadian varsity sport.


Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., Petipas, A. J., Bachman, A. D., & Weinhold, R. A. (1998). Newspaper portrayals of sport psychology in the United States, 1985-1993. The Sport Psychologist, 12, 89-94.

Chew, K., & Thompson, R. (2014). Potential barriers to accessing mental health services. In G.T. Brown (Ed.), Mind, body and sport: Understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness. Indianapolis, IN: National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Reardon, C. & Factor, R., (2010). Sport Psychiatry: A systematic review of diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes. Sports Medicine, 40(11), 961-980.

Linder, D. E., Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & DeLange, N. (1991). A negative halo for athletes who consult sport psychologists: Replication and extension. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13, 133-148.

Lopez, R. L. & Levy. J. L. (2013) Student athletes’ perceived barriers to and preferences for seeking counseling. Journal of College Counselling, 16(1), doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1882.2013.00024.x

Lunau, K. (2012). The mental health crisis on campus: Canadian students feel hopeless, depressed, even suicidal. MacLean’s Magazine.

Schwenk, T. L. (2000). The stigmatization and denial of mental illness in athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34, 4-5.

Smetanin, P., Stiff, D., Briante, C., Adair, C.E., Ahmad, S. and Khan, M., (2011). The Life and Economic Impact of Major Mental Illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041. RiskAnalytica, on behalf of the Mental Heath Commission of Canada

Vogel, D. L., Wade, N. G., & Heckler, A. H. (2007). Perceived public stigma and the willingness to seek counseling: The mediating roles of self-stigma and attitudes toward counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54(1), 40-50.

Watson, J. C. (2005). College student-athletes’ attitudes toward help-seeking behavior and expectations of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 442-449, doi:10.1353/csd.2005.0044

Wertheim, J. (2010). McKinley’s apparent suicide casts light on athletes’ risk of depression. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved September, 2014 from