Marauders at the Olympics: McMaster expert supports athletes’ mental health

Dr. Carla Edwards in front of the rings at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Sports Psychiatrist Carla Edwards specializes in the assessment and treatment of mental illness in athletes. She’s also written about the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of high performance athletes.

Edwards, Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster, is on the ground in Tokyo as a medical doctor and psychiatrist supporting athletes and staff on the Swim Team.

She spoke with the Daily News about her role at these Olympic Games:

On her role at — and before — Tokyo 2021

This is my first Olympic Games!

I was hired by Swimming Canada in 2017 following their success at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 because they recognized the vital importance of involving a psychiatrist with expertise in sports to support their athletes, staff, and organization. Over the last four years my role has grown to include travel with the team to major events like World Championships and the Olympic Games to maintain the balanced influence of mental health and wellness among everyone (athletes and staff included!) during highly intense performance situations.

I am very fortunate to have a multifaceted role within Swimming Canada. At the highest levels I work with the organizational administration and leadership to develop policies, protocols and pathways to identify individuals who need assistance, and also built the capacity with the team to develop ways to manage wellness. As a medical doctor and psychiatrist, I also work directly with the athletes (or staff) who require assessment and treatment of mental illness.

My sports background and medical training have equipped me with the ability to truly assess and manage the broad spectrum of biological, social, and psychological elements that can influence mental health in an elite sport setting, and the treatments I offer span medical and psychotherapeutic modalities. During a Major Games event such as the Olympic Games, my role includes continuing to support athletes with whom I have longstanding therapeutic relationships, initiating and managing medications as needed, engaging with specific techniques for mental performance, collaborating with the coaches to attend to the athletes’ needs, and liaising with team leadership to assist in planning and supporting the athletes as events occur during competition.

On what’s different — and what isn’t

Since arrival on July 17, the team has really experienced shifting phases of dynamics, energy and atmosphere, and the transition from one phase to the next has been quite fascinating. The eight hour airport experience was difficult to navigate, particularly after the nine and a half hour flight, but we were well prepared for that and emerged from it with gratitude to move on to the Athlete’s Village! The next phase featured excitement and novelty, which included stepping into the Canada building, receiving our Team Canada gear, and exploring the beautiful village set up. Next was getting into the competition venue, which was accompanied by a palpable lift in energy, excitement, and intention- we were really here!

Being in the Village for one week prior to competition has been fantastic, because the athletes have successfully transitioned through the initial phases and can now focus on performance! There are little things that need to be addressed and managed along the way, but everyone is getting into the zone and ready to go. Being immersed in the Olympic environment, walking amongst the best athletes from around the world with everyone proudly wearing their country’s colours, is an incredible experience and everybody is grateful to be here representing Canada. In terms of COVID-19 precautions, there is a multitude of protocols in place and most people adhere to the requirements. There are others who do not, so we have to ensure that we take every precaution to minimize our risk of exposure to COVID-19.

There has been a lot of debate about whether these Games should or would be held. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) firmly held its position that the Games would be held, and here we are. I certainly felt better about attending after becoming fully vaccinated; but I recognize that there are many people here who are partially vaccinated or not at all. I am ecstatic about being at the Olympics, but have to remain ever vigilant about the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

On the importance of mental performance

Studies clearly demonstrate that working on mental performance is just as important as physical practice. Athletes who work on mental skills for sport performance and self-regulation in addition to physical practice tend to have better execution and success. Mental skills training can be individualized and/or team-targeted; and can focus on the execution of sport or the development of mindfulness and resilience.

The deferred Games gave many athletes the opportunity to increase their capacity for resilience, improve their physical and mental health, and work on their mental performance skills. Mental fortitude can be conceptualized as the ability to withstand significant adversity and succeed. These athletes and staff are entering these Games following the highest level of adversity that most have ever faced in their careers. These are all new experiences- even for our returning Olympians. Swimming Canada made an effort to prepare them for this as we delivered a seven-session series on building resilience and “moving forward in an uncertain time” throughout the Winter of 2020.

On supporting athletes at these Games

It is a great honour to be here with the team, and they are all doing a fantastic job rising to the occasion of why they are here. It has been a long road, and they have weathered the months of uncertainty to step onto the stage that so many have dreamed of all their lives. We have an amazing contingent of athletes and staff proudly wearing the Canadian uniform, and no matter what happens- they will represent us well. GO CANADA GO!

Carla Edwards is a Royal College certified psychiatrist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of mental illness in athletes. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster.

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