Olympic champion Mitchell on the importance of positive mental health practices
Canadian Olympic gold medallist Kelsey Mitchell knows firsthand how important the mental side of sport is.
Mitchell, who won Olympic gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in sprint track cycling, genuinely loves to train, but admitted she recently went through a period where pushing herself too far physically resulted in her mental health suffering.
“I just dug myself into a hole physically,” Mitchell told TSN.ca. “And so, I wasn’t able to train, and I struggled mentally not being able to train and do what I love to do.
“It’s funny, everyone always told me to find that balance of training and life outside of training, but I think more so for me, I needed to find a balance of training and rest. There’s definitely a point where my body can’t go as hard as maybe I wanted it to.”
Mitchell, who hails from Sherwood Park, Alta., and now trains in Milton, Ont., grew up playing team sports such as soccer and basketball.
It was at an RBC Training Ground in 2017, a talent identification and athlete-funding program designed to uncover athletes with Olympic potential, that Mitchell was selected by Cycling Canada to try sprint track cycling.
In that short time since taking up the sport, the 29 year old has Olympic gold, world championship bronze, four Commonwealth Games medals (three silver, one bronze), and seven Pan American Championships medals, including five golds.
On Feb. 13, the Coaching Association of Canada launched a Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub, created to provide information and the tools to help coaches learn to integrate positive mental health practices at all levels of sport across the country. The free online portal offers support, guidance and practical tools designed to increase mental health literacy of Canada's approximately 2.5 coaches as well as offering assistance in overcoming the stigma around mental health and guiding conversations. The hub includes content such as training modules, research, data, infographics, videos, and activities provided by organizations with expertise in mental health literacy and education.
Mitchell said it is important to create a positive sports experience, particularly for children.
“I think early on you got to have a coach that is able to make it fun. We want to keep kids in sports,” said Mitchell. “When you get to that top level, there’s more pressure, there’s more stress, and so maybe it’s not all on the coach. You have other resources like psychologists and mental performance specialists that will help as well.
“But I think having that good relationship with your coach is key and if the coach’s mental health is struggling, they’re not going to be able to show up every day for the athlete and vice versa.”
Mitchell said developing that kind of relationship with her coach, Franck Durivaux, was a process, and that much of it was built through trial and error.
“[At] worlds in 2020, we had conflict and disagreed on something on race day,” said Mitchell. “And afterwards, we obviously had a lot of time until the Olympics, but we were able to sort it, talk it through. Then at the Olympics a similar situation kind of occurred but he knew how to handle it and what I needed, and he let me just focus and do my thing, and it worked out.
“Every athlete needs something different and figuring out what that is key. I'm not good at voicing what I need, more so I'm observing and learning kind of what works best. So, just doing lots of races together and going through the good and the bad is what helped us learn each other.”
Even though cycling is primarily an individual sport, Mitchell still goes in with a team mentality, citing her coach, physiotherapist, and nutritionist as key contributors to her success. She also says her relationship with teammate and friend Lauriane Genest, who won bronze in the keirin event at the 2020 Olympics, is an important one.
“We struggled initially, I think a little more her than me, figuring to work together, compete against each other,” said Mitchell. “But then at the end of the day still be friends and be able to be happy for each other’s successes.
“We found something that works for us and that was a game-changer for me because I definitely struggled initially, just constantly feeling like I was battling against someone versus working together.”
With the 2024 Paris Olympics just over a year away, the focus for Mitchell right now is the world championships taking place in August in Glasgow, Scotland. She’s training on the track four times a week, on the road for three, and in the gym for four.
While some Olympians struggle with the expectations and attention that came after winning a medal, Mitchell was excited to share her gold medal with others.
She said the attention quieted down after the Olympics, but she’s keenly aware that external expectations for her have changed as she goes into events.
“It definitely changes things that people expect you to go out there and perform and get a medal, but I already had that expectation on myself,” said Mitchell.