Women athletes are redefining what 'strength' really means

In a sphere that demands strength, rapid recovery and a willingness to overcome physical hurdles and overpass the mental ones, high-performing women athletes need a place to be soft and strong, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Talking about mental health requires great strength of character and conviction

Simone Biles proudly shows off her bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics last July. At the Games, she moved the conversation about mental health to the forefront of athletics. (AFP via Getty Images)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the month of March rolls around, I prepare to attend many events to celebrate International Women's Day. I like to celebrate women all the time, and the global community of women in sports also gets extra amplification and well-deserved attention. 

I also prepare to avoid the discussions from the "I'm just playing devil's advocate" dudebro types who ponder why there isn't an "International Man's Day," arguing if feminists really wanted equality then there would be a day celebrating men, too. And questioning whether women are "tough enough" or "strong enough."

If only I had the energy to sit them down in person and explain the differences between equity and equality. It takes a level of mental strength and emotional bandwidth I do not have, and am not interested in spending. And that is okay, too. 

In addition to the recognition we offer women today, we should think about the acknowledgement of the less-than-glorious moments in sports. There have been moments of failure and struggle. Do we hold enough space and place for those? We should understand that women athletes will navigate those issues. Not speaking about mental-health challenges as part of the experience in sports can be dangerous. 

WATCH | (Not) Indomitable: An Essay

(Not) Indomitable: An essay on mental health, and women in sport

1 year ago
Duration 3:33
On International Women's Day, CBC's Shireen Ahmed presents her essay on women in sport, and the mental health struggles they face.

One week ago, U.S. college soccer player Katie Meyer was found dead in her room on the Stanford University campus. Meyer died by suicide. She was best known for her incredible goalkeeping performance in the 2019 NCAA finals that was pivotal in her Cardinals winning a national title. 

Her family is devastated, her teammates are heartbroken, and many in the women's soccer world are wondering how and why this could happen. During a crushing interview with The Today Show, Gina Meyer explained that her normally bubbly 22-year-old daughter was facing some possible disciplinary charges at school. Athletes are expected to be so tough that the weight of anxiety and stress is not calculated into what they may experience. If Meyer was distraught, did she have a person to go to? Her death feels like such a grave loss because no one knew or could intervene. 

Mental health struggles are often silent and don't always display obvious symptoms, particularly with athletes we think are "strong."

High-performing elite women athletes are so busy proving they deserve broadcast time, should be paid fairly, and that issues of justice matter to them. They are the embodiment of strength. 

Players on the Canadian women's national soccer team are strong advocates on issues of LGBTIQ2S+ and for racial justice. They have supported campaigns to support frontline workers in the pandemic and constantly promote having a sustainable women's league in Canada. This is all in addition to being Olympic champions. Canada's women's hockey team is also looking for a sustainable women's league because women's hockey doesn't have one either. And they, too, are Olympic and world champions. 

The toll taken on girls and women to not only rally support for their existence in sports but retain energy and strength for competing is unimaginable. And, like in the case of Katie Meyer, it can be overwhelming. Protecting and advocating for girls and women in sport is also important. 

With the expectations and demands to be perfect and win, it is seldom possible to avoid succumbing to heavy worry, loneliness and stress, 

The CBC's Anastasia Bucsis is a dear colleague and friend. She is talented, intelligent and warm; everything we would imagine a successful broadcaster or athlete to be. Bucsis wrote an intensely beautiful and important piece in 2018 about her own struggles with mental health, and how she navigated the turbulent times in her life. Her honesty about her personal trials helps us feel less alone in our own. 

Bucsis reflects on her journey with dignity and with sincerity. I spoke with her for the Burn It All Down podcast last summer, and I remember thinking her candour and bravery would save lives. Her honesty about what she survived would help tear down walls of shame that are often built up when we talk about mental health. If you ask me, this takes great strength of character and conviction. 

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Since last International Women's Day, we've seen Canadian women dominate the podium. Relive every medal won by women at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

I struggled to admit publicly that I battled depression and anxiety. I did it when I was on a conference panel with other journalists speaking of their own experiences. It affected me so profoundly that I found the voice inside me to say that I, too, struggled with mental-health issues. 

In the hyper-masculine world of sports, we need people to help us understand that these struggles are more the norm than the exception. Carey Price is the storied goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens. Price led the team to an incredible Stanley Cup final appearance in 2021. But this very private and quiet player took time off at the beginning of this season after revealing that he was entering the NHL assistance program due to substance abuse. Price was unapologetic and transparent. He received much support from the hockey community. But we need to keep the channels of communication open, and the dialogues continuous. Not just when people go into crisis. 

In a sphere that demands strength, rapid recovery and a willingness to overcome physical hurdles and overpass the mental ones, high-performing women athletes need a place to be soft and strong. During a conversation with a friend, I told him I was tired of being told I am "resilient." It is exhausting to be so self-assured all the time, and live up to that reputation. Where is my space for vulnerability? Racialized women are often touted as being "strong" or "powerful" or "indomitable." That narrative is spun as a compliment, but as I recently learned, some Black women are pushing back against it. 

My friend told me that being strong is important, but I could define what that meant, and I could be strong in a way that was authentic and important to me. 

This past couple of years, tennis star Naomi Osaka and gymnastics legend Simone Biles have exemplified that elite athletes can take a break if they feel too pressured, and will protect themselves. These examples of self-advocacy are powerful lessons to share with other athletes. They are proving they are strong by their own definition. 

WATCH | Naomi Osaka withdraws from French Open:

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2 years ago
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Tennis star Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the French Open citing an ongoing battle with depression and social anxiety. Osaka had previously said she wouldn’t do any press conferences during the tournament because of mental health concerns.

American skier Mikaela Shiffrin's results at the Beijing Olympics were not what she had hoped. She was very open about her personal struggles and reminded the world in an Instagram post: "Yeah, I am human." 

Being human requires a strength that Bucsis, Osaka, Biles and Shiffrin possess. A strength that is steeped in survival and in self-care. That is a human strength that is more important than a race time or a judged result. It is the strength in the knowledge of self-preservation; possibly the greatest strength of them all. 

As we move forward in celebrating the accomplishments of women, let's also be cognizant that understanding mental-health challenges will only strengthen the chances for women to heal, succeed and survive, but also thrive.

Where to get help

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).

If you or a loved one is at immediate risk, call 911.

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