March 2023, Articles - Events

Managing the Mental Health Challenges of Elite Sport

At the end of selection camp, triallists for Team Canada’s sledge hockey team are told to pack their bags. One-by-one, they’re then called to a meeting room and informed of their fate. If they’ve made the team, they return to their hotel rooms and unpack. If not, well, at least they’re already packed when told to head for the hotel exit.

2014 Olympic bronze medallist Kevin Rempel was surprised by the ripple of bemusement that emanated from the crowd when he relayed that nugget at Performance Summit 2023, cohosted by HPSNZ, Paralympics New Zealand and the NZOC.

The setting up of a such a theatrical dynamic for delivering what, for many, would be life changing news had never struck him as odd.

Given Rempel’s mixed experiences as an elite para-athlete with Team Canada, that’s not all that surprising. In his final year with the team, he’d endured an at-best distant relationship with the coach, and felt alienated by the team’s macho culture.

“If I communicated how I felt, it was shut down, it was laughed at,” says Rempel. “Because that was the cool thing to do. When I communicated how I felt, it felt like it didn’t matter – so I stopped communicating.”

When he was cut in 2015, he simply thanked the coaches and headed for door. Barely any words were exchanged.

For Rempel, non-selection meant facing up to the mental challenges of losing a sporting career for a second time.

While the end of his para-sport journey wasn’t entirely unexpected, the same couldn’t be said of a promising freestyle Moto-X career that came to an immediate, life-changing end in 2006.

An attempted jump that went horribly wrong saw Rempel fall nearly 25m after ejecting from his bike. The impact with the ground left him instantly paralysed, having broken his back, pelvis and wrist.

He was, he says, lucky. His vertebra was fractured and dislocated, but able to be surgically realigned.

“With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work I was able to get back on me feet and walk again.”

While he managed to get back on his bike a year to the day after the accident, his career as a professional Moto-X rider was well and truly over.

“I had to embrace a new reality. When the dream dies the transition can take time. Practicing acceptance is key. Learning how to accept whatever outcome you experience is one of the best things any of us can do in our lives.”

Rempel’s new reality meant losing his identity, friends, vision and direction.

“The physical, mental and emotional battles were significant,” he says.

“It was an overnight experience – but now all of a sudden I had to figure things out.”

Having the psyche of an extreme sports athlete certainly helped.

“In extreme sports the mindset is ‘when you fall down you pick yourself back up’ because that is just what you are supposed to do. So much of the joy from extreme sports comes from failing and picking yourself up in front of other people. That’s what I got off on. Even when I was paralysed, I couldn’t wait to become that comeback story.”

At the time of his injury, Rempel didn’t know that para-sport existed. It took him two years to discover sledge hockey. Once he did, all of the mental and physical benefits he had gained from Moto-X returned.

“I had to find a way to motivate myself and set a new direction after I was paralysed. Everything I got through Moto-X I now got through sledge.

“It also brought me together with a new community – people with disabilities – which improved my mental health. I did not feel so alone in that journey.”

Rempel proved good enough at the rough and tumble sport to earn selection to Team Canada for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

There were plenty of things he loved about his career as a high-performance para-athlete, but just as many he hated.

What shocked him, though, was the mental health struggles he endured when it was all over.

“After the Olympic Games I went through post Olympics depression. I thought I understood the Olympic cycle and thought I was prepared.

“The transition to life after sport was pretty abrupt even though I thought I knew what was coming.”

While he still loved sledge hockey, the joy he’d once had in playing for Team Canada had gone. After Sochi, he played on – for dubious reasons.

“I decided to go back for one more year even though I didn’t want to. My attitude sucked. I was playing but I didn’t want to play. I needed the money – and I would have felt stupid if I didn’t play.”

No-one on the team’s coaching staff bothered to ask what was going on with him. That indifference would continue after he was cut.

“I remember thinking this guy [the coach] doesn’t even care about me. He’s not going to ask why my attitude sucked. He didn’t want to find out why I didn’t want to be there.

“When you have athletes who may not be meeting expectations or performing at their best or their attitude sucks, I challenge you to become curious,” says Rempel.

“Care. Check in. Know that many athletes suffer in silence.”

A positive team culture that remains inclusive even after a player departs is hugely beneficial to mental wellbeing, says Rempel.

“I got some follow up calls but never on a human level.

“Let athletes know they are not dead from the team. If you are on a team, you are in the circle. But as soon as you are off the team, even if you were just there a week ago, it kind of felt like you were dead to the team.

“Keeping that relationship through the transition to life after sport goes a significantly long way in helping athletes with their mental health journey.

“As a coach how can you create a connection with the players so they feel like they matter beyond just the outcome of the games?

“If you are the leader of a team, how can you create an environment where everyone feels welcome?”

Athletes also need to be made fully aware of the realities of the pinnacle event cycle, says Rempel.

“You are going to experience a high – but it is also going to crash. If you know that is coming, then you won’t get too high, and you won’t get too low.

“Whether you win a medal or not, once you come back home you have a two- or three-month runway.

“Think about life outside of sport. Sport is just a moment in time. That is going to go away – so how can you best set yourself up for life after sport? That is what is going to help your mental health journey the most.”

Kevin Rempel keynote speaker during The Sport NZ Performance Summit, Auckland, New Zealand on Wednesday 15 March 2023. Photo credit: Lynne Cameron /