Saints Football hosting mental, emotional health event for student athletes

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The Saints Football Association is holding a three-day event dedicated to supporting the mental and emotional health of student athletes.

Kevin Garbuio, head coach of the Fort McMurray Catholic School Division’s Saints football team, created the idea after COVID-19 forced schools to shut down in March. As classes moved online and teams cancelled games, Garbuio said he watched students in the football community struggle.

“A lot of them, they didn’t know what to do. I tried to think about it from my perspective, how I would feel about it and this would be killing me,” he said. “This is something you’re working for. All those benchmarks you have… all of it getting taken off the list, I saw the frustration.”

Garbuio also realized he had minimal training on supporting athletes who needed help with their emotional and mental health. Creating a positive sports culture in schools became a priority. With the program backed by Alberta’s Mental Health and Addiction COVID-19 Community Funding grant, Garbuio hopes it can serve as a template for other programs that help local athletes.


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“A lot of times, especially in a sport like football, people are afraid to ask for help, they don’t want to look weak,” said Garbuio. “This is kind of a way to show them, ‘Hey, it’s alright to be weak and it’s alright to need help. There’s nothing wrong with that.'”

The event will bring multiple speakers to Fort McMurray to talk with athletes, coaches and parents. Included is Kurtis Pankow, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and assistant coach of the Golden Bears football team. He said mental health plays a big role in sports.

“Feeling good about yourself, feeling confident in yourself, feeling like you have good social support from your teammates and coaches,” he said. “I think that just makes it easier to practice and be committed to your practice and perform better.”

With cancelled competitions and uncertainty surrounding future games, Pankow added having social support makes a difference to athletes.

“Just the awareness that they’re in an environment that supports them and cares I think can be really helpful,” he said.

Pankow said having conversations and letting people know it’s OK to discuss mental health can improve their outlook. Having professional athletes speak about their own experiences has also made way for similar conversations at the amateur level.

“I think it really all just starts with dialogue and being able to get people on the same page because then we can communicate those shared expectation,” he said. “Having that sense of community from the get-go I think is a big part of that.”

Garbuio hopes to see it become an annual event that eventually expands.

“I think putting in that idea of growing and not shutting down with failure, and realizing that’s a part of the journey is something that all of us could learn in all of our fields,” said Garbuio.

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