Laurel Jarvis/Guelph Gryphon Athletics
If a CFL player suffers an injury there are plenty of medical personnel to assist in the recovery.
Pull a hamstring or injure a knee, trainers and doctors are there to attend. Physiotherapists and strength and conditioning coaches will assist in the recovery.
But if that same players begins to feel stress, anxiety or depression, help may not be as easy to access.
Helping to bridge that gap is a goal for Sara Sherstobitoff, a registered psychotherapist with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO), who is attending training camp with the Toronto Argonauts as part of the CFL’s Women in Football Program, presented by KPMG.
“I think it’s interesting to reflect on how physical health has historically been given precedence over mental health,” said Sherstobitoff. “If an athlete dislocates their shoulder, there are athletic trainers on the sideline, they have access to a medical doctor.
“However, if an athlete is experiencing anxiety on the field, or maybe they are struggling mentally in some way, it is often not given the same weight. But in reality, both mental and physical health are equally important and play into an athlete’s performance.”
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The same athlete who seeks treatment for a twisted ankle may be reluctant to speak about his mental health.
“There are a variety of factors that impede disclosure from athletes,” said Sherstobitoff. “Factors such as the socialization of masculinity, stereotypical gender norms, the stigma or fear of being perceived differently by a teammate or a coach. There’s also social and cultural influences.”
During the Argos’ camp Sherstobitoff spoke with several players who had been released. Most talked about it being part of the job or something they had experienced before. She pointed out that there is a sports psychologist providing sports psychology seminars to the players at training camp.
“It’s actually OK to say you are feeling a certain way, or that you’re upset or mad,” she said.
“I think it’s important for athletes to realize they have value beyond the game. They matter as people, not only as athletes.”
Speaking out about mental health issues has become more acceptable in society in general. The list of athletes who have talked openly about their struggles includes Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis star Naomi Osaka, former Toronto Raptor DeMar DeRozan, basketball player Kia Nurse and soccer player Stephanie Labbe. Former BC Lions quarterback Michael Reilly opened up about his personal struggles in 2019.
“When we speak up, we show others that they can too” said Sherstobitoff. “It’s completely OK to speak to a therapist or access professional supports because we all have a story.
“The more we see this occur, the more it will become normalized to have a contracted professional on sports teams.”
The CRPO explains that registered psychotherapists provide talk-based therapeutic services using a variety of treatment modalities to help support individuals with their mental health.
On her website, she explains therapy as a space that allows for reflection, exploration, discovery and growth. Vulnerability is met with compassion and empathy. She works with individuals to create a safe space where they are accepted, seen and heard for exactly who they are.
A native of North Vancouver, BC, Sherstobitoff grew up a BC Lions fan and went to games with her father.
While attending university she held different roles with the Simon Fraser University football team, including student team manager, administration, and film. She also volunteered with Football BC.
Sherstobitoff obtained her undergrad degree in psychology from SFU and her Master of Education in Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Toronto.
“I am passionate about football” said Sherstobitoff. “A long-term goal is to merge my love of sports and psychology.
“Since I’ve been at training camp, the Argos players and staff have been open and receptive to conversations around mental heath.”
The CFL’s Women in Football Program has nine participants spending training camp with the league’s teams. They gain knowledge and practical experience while working in professional football.
While with the Argos, Sherstobitoff has worked in football operations, film and attends position meetings.
“I want to demonstrate to the Argos I’m embracing every opportunity that I’ve been given,” she said. “I’m deeply appreciative of the space they provided for me.
“What I hope to take away is a deepened understanding of the CFL and everything that goes on behind the scenes from operations to coaching to film. I’ve been able to obtain knowledge from all these experts in the field. It’s a unique experience where I am able to build connections which I would not have had without the Women in Football Program.”
Last year two participants in the program were hired full-time with their clubs. Elisha Torraville joined the Edmonton Elks as Manager of Football Operations and Paige Ottaviano became the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Manager, Grey Cup Festival and Events.
Sherstobitoff said would love to find a job within the league and hopefully expand it to fit into her career.
“I would engage in any opportunity that becomes available,” she said. “They (the CFL) have made great strides with the Women in Football Program and the Diversity in Football Program.
“I think that mental health is fairly underrepresented and not talked about enough. I think this is the next piece of the puzzle. I hope to have a conversation near the end of camp discussing the importance of continuing to prioritize mental health within football.”