uOttawa partners with Tennis Canada to implement pioneering mental health strategy

Faculty of Health Sciences
Mental Health
Research and innovation

By Paul Logothetis

Media Relations Agent, Media Relations, External Relations

Bianca Andreescu meditating with another woman
Courtesy of Tennis Canada
First comprehensive mental health strategy for Canadian sport governing body creates road map for athletes, coaches, parents, and staff

Success doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness in sport, particularly in a lonely sport like tennis. Former world No. 1 Naomi Osaka has only recently returned from a nearly two-year break that included time for mental health, while Canadian player Bianca Andreescu has been public about her own mental health journey. 

Nearly two years in the making, Tennis Canada has partnered with the University of Ottawa, Own The Podium, the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS), and Game Plan to design, implement and evaluate a comprehensive long-term strategy to improve the mental health and wellness of Tennis Canada athletes, coaches, parents, and staff.

Tennis Canada is the first national sport organization to unveil such a mental health strategy, which is based on the Mental Health Strategy for High Performance Sport in Canada and the science and research led by Dr. Natalie Durand-Bush, University of Ottawa Professor and Executive Director of the CCMHS. Durand-Bush (Faculty of Health Sciences) has over two decades of experience researching and working with athletes and coaches as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, including the nation capital’s Ottawa Senators. 

uOttawa PhD student Mikaela Papich (School of Human Kinetics) is also playing an important role in researching each step of this novel project. Papich has first-hand experience from the player’s point-of-view as a retired competitive tennis player who competed in the U.S. collegiate Division 1 circuit and endured mental and physical injuries throughout her career.

The pair detailed the nature of the university’s collaboration on the project. 

Profile of Durand-Bush
Lindsey Gibeau

“This research will help us advance what we know about mental health from a sport organization standpoint and be in a better position to support participants at all levels.”

Natalie Durand-Bush

— Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, and Executive Director of the CCMHS

Lindsey Gibeau

Question: Why did Tennis Canada want to develop this mental heath strategy for its athletes, coaches, parents, and staff?
Mikaela Papich: “The big inflection point came when Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win the U.S. Open in 2019. With the whole world watching in awe of her historic win, she decided to take time off from tennis due to a reduced passion. That moment came as a shock because it showed that success doesn’t equate to positive mental health. This revealed that support cannot come only after someone has a crisis, but it is necessary to be preventative and proactive to build a system that protects athletes’ mental health. This can be achieved by creating safe environments for players that promote both their well-being and success: we need to take care of them and make sure they are OK.”

Natalie Durand-Bush: “Tennis Canada responded to identified needs and gaps within their community. In the wake of the launch of the national mental health strategy in 2001, they sought support to be part of the solution to improve the wellness of the members they serve. Since it was founded in 2018, the CCMHS has been an effective and reliable organization providing important services, resources, and support, and producing high quality research on mental health in sport. Tennis Canada approached us wanting to create a systematic and comprehensive roadmap to improve mental health across their organization. To our knowledge, nothing like this has been done with this much breadth, depth, and rigour within a sport organization, so Tennis Canada is paving the way for other sport governing bodies.”

Q: Tennis Canada is taking a proactive approach on a national scale. How was this implemented?
NDB: “Tennis Canada is the only sport organization thus far that has used the national mental health strategy to guide them every step of the way. Also, the in-depth and systematic process they have followed has been critical and pioneering. The design phase of this project included identifying a core leadership team and creating a task force with representation across the organization to inform the work and provide feedback at multiple check points along the way.  

“We’ve had multiple meetings and introduced tools and processes to identify needs, gaps, priorities, and actions that have helped shape Tennis Canada’s strategy. Discussions pertained to leadership, communication, financial support, mental health promotion, prevention, and treatment, and evaluation, to give some examples.” 

MP: “This rigorous strategy is based on science and research and is being tracked over time, which will allow us to monitor and update processes to ensure concrete actions are taken within the tennis community. It takes a lot of effort and commitment to mobilize an entire organization, but the implementation has already started with Tennis Canada creating a mental health section on its website, promoting access to CCMHS mental health literacy workshops for its coaches, providing Mental Health First Aid training, and hiring a Wellness Director. These are some of the initiatives that have gotten the ball rolling.”

Profile of Mishi Papich

“A component is to educate parents and coaches to understand how they can be supportive and communicate positive messages. Performance and results are not the only variables.”

Mikaela Papich

— PhD student and former player

Q: How does tennis differ from other sports when it comes to mental health?
MP: “Tennis is a very lonely sport and the mental aspect of that is very challenging. Players are very hard on themselves and it’s a sport that requires strong mental stamina. Tennis players specialize early, they travel a lot and being away from family, friends and school impacts the development of close relationships. Coaches are important mentors to young athletes going through these challenges and stresses of the Tour, so psychologically healthy coach-athlete relationships are essential.

“There can also be pressure from coaches and parents, who can facilitate or impede the player’s mental health. Tennis parents are very invested and can be very supportive, but their behaviors can also add stress. So, a huge component of the strategy is to educate parents and coaches to understand how they can be supportive and communicate positive messages. Performance and results are not the only variables.” 

Q: How will this project impact and add to the research you are already undertaking?
NDB: “This project will influence how we support other organizations wanting to develop a plan and implement programs and policies to leverage mental health as an asset to improve performance and success in sport. We are tracking the implementation of Tennis Canada’s strategy in real time and will evaluate how effective their program is at improving the mental health outcomes of athletes, coaches, parents, and staff. We strongly believe that Tennis Canada’s community will be stronger because of its impactful work. There are several other research projects being carried out within the CCMHS and with other colleagues in Canada and abroad. This research with Tennis Canada will help us collectively advance what we know about mental health from a sport organization standpoint and be in a better position to support participants at all levels.” 

The strategy will be rolled out to the National Tennis Centre presented by Rogers and National Teams in 2024, the wider competitive structure in 2025, followed by provincial clubs and academies by 2026.

Read the full announcement by Tennis Canada here.

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