It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: Bret Himmelman’s Mental Health Journey

Posted By: Canoe Kayak Canada

Being an athlete has been a big part of my identity since I started playing sports and when people ask what I do, I say I am an athlete. It is something I have always been proud of being, however, when talking about mental health it is important to separate that part of your identity. As someone who has struggled with mental health and still does, it can be incredibly difficult to recognize what your mental health needs if I don’t separate what Bret the athlete needs versus what Bret the person needs. Being a high-performance athlete and in the pursuit of excellence we are always told we need to push ourselves to the limit, but how can we push ourselves 100% if we are at a 20% mentally? In my experience, mental health has always been the hardest thing to recover from and the easiest thing to ignore. I started to open up about my own personal struggles with mental health approximately 5 years ago with the goal that if I can help one person with my story and experiences, it was worth it to be vulnerable about them. I have now lived close to half of my life with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety diagnosis and last year I realized the coping strategies that worked for me when I was 13 do not work the same today.

Throughout last year I recognized that I was filled with anxiety, and I was being consumed by obsessive thoughts, which at first, I was able to bottle up and say I will deal with this later, became overwhelming and affected me on and off the water. When ignoring my mental health started to affect my practices on the water, it led to a further spiral and pushing through it was counterproductive to my training and mental state. I kept telling myself that I am an athlete and I need to just keep getting through the day to get to my goals. Every athlete trains at a higher level when they are physically, mentally and emotionally healthy compared to when they are not, and despite knowing this, I had the tendency to gaslight myself by saying everything is okay when it is not. After struggling with this for longer than I needed to, I decided to separate what I need as a person and what I need as an athlete. I am a goal-oriented athlete and for this year I have decided to prioritise my mental health goals, and I am certain that working on these will help me get closer to my goals in training and racing. As mental health is unique to everyone, what I may give for advice may not work for everyone, but here are some things I have implemented that have been working for me.

1. When the training day is done, be done with thinking about training. Especially at training camps, the sport can be consuming and living in that mindset 24/7 can make the training blocks more exhausting than they need to be. Doing this has helped my mind relax more at night while allowing me to attack morning practice the next day more.

2. When the days are harder to get through, intervene with a favourite.
Whether that is watching a favourite movie, eating a comfort meal, or even changing a practice to one you love, a simple intervention in the middle of a difficult week can change the course for the rest of it.

3. It is okay to not be okay, camps are hard, this sport is gruelling, and there is no way to completely avoid that. This is where I have learned to focus on what I can control rather than what I can’t as we only have so much energy and attention, directing it towards what we can impact is the best use of energy.

Most of what I listed above is not ground-breaking advice, but if what I shared can help one person, either with managing their own mental health or to open up themselves, we create a conversation without stigma we can all learn and grow from. My hope is that we can have a hundred athletes in our sport share what they do to help their mental health and the more we have open conversations, the more everyone gets out of it.

Written and submitted by Bret Himmelman.