The road of the student-athlete is one which Cole Giffin is intimately acquainted with.
From 2013 to 2017, the native of Kingston appeared in just under 50 games as a member of the Laurentian Voyageurs men’s soccer team, ascending to the role of team captain.
By all accounts, the graduate who proudly boasts a Bachelor of Arts with specialization of Sport Psychology as a post-secondary academic starting point was handling life fairly well. Immersed in an environment that perhaps required juggling a little more than the average student, Giffin was dealing with the required transition.
His own personal experiences were at the core of a peer mentorship program that he and PhD colleague Brennan Peterson established just a few years later. “It blossomed from the idea that student athletes face a lot of demands, balancing the demands of school and athletics, and then similar to other students, just being away from home, maybe having to work, maintaining a relationship,” he said.
“That can be a shock to the system. We wanted to create a program that would help student athletes better their mental health.”
If self-confidence is often at the very core of many a successful athlete, it can also create an illusion of stability and ultra positive mental health, with no real knowledge of the potential for underlying issues.
“I believe that part of the problem is that if you don’t have any negative symptoms - depression, anxiety, or even just feeling bad - then you’re considered mentally healthy,” noted the 27 year-old who has now added a masters in Human Kinetics to his resume, a springboard to his current PhD research in the same line of studies.
“I just don’t think that’s true. Having good mental health is actually thriving within your environment, constantly growing.”
Some of this represents core beliefs that Giffin has long carried with him. Some of this is undoubtedly part of the learnings of the peer mentorship program that he so proudly helped pioneer. “As we started to develop it, we realized that there are a lot of factors that are missing and are not being taught to student athletes,” he explained.
“Mental health is affected by every aspect of your life.”
In practice, Giffin and Peterson worked initially with both the men’s and women’s soccer teams at L.U., establishing four or five peer mentorship groups within each squad. The groups were assigned a leader, typically a fourth or fifth year veteran of Laurentian athletics, someone who could help lead the discussions.
“It’s almost completely self-directed in the sense that the athletes choose where they want to go with the conversations.”
Giffin and Peterson would help provide a framework to the discussions, offering topical suggestions, though neither would attend the group chats. Through it all, athletes learned, students learned - and Cole Giffin learned.
And now he is putting that additional knowledge to use, nestled to the comfort blanket that is soccer, rolling out a program in partnership with the Greater Sudbury Soccer Club (GSSC) that is more far-reaching than anything we have seen historically within the local sports scene. Funded with the support of Hill Life Financial, the pragmatics of this undertaking are near and dear to the Voyageur alumnus who helped shape it.
“Typically, sports psychology tends to focus heavily on athlete success or failure,” said Giffin. “But coaches also go through a lot of issues that they could use help with. It’s tough when you’re managing a job, managing your family life, and then coaching in your spare time. Sport psychology offers the potential support to take a little of the weight off coaches.”
If sport psychology has made a name for itself within the realm of professional or Olympic athletes and the like, the Giffin offering is far more of a grass roots approach. A staunch proponent of life learnings through sport, the man who is working closely with Dr Robert Schinke (he himself preparing for yet another Olympic appearance in Tokyo) noted that much is taken for granted when it comes to the takeaways very young athletes are expected to absorb.
“Teamwork, for example, is a skill that should be valued within sport, but it’s something that is not necessarily taught,” suggested Giffin. “It’s just expected. There are ways that sport psychology can be utilized to create an environment to teach some of those lessons.”
At the very heart of the science itself lies countless conversations, those opportunities to dig a little deeper, creating both a natural setting for greater introspection but also opening the channels that further athlete to athlete bonds, coach to athlete bonds.
“We all know that coaches can find it challenging to communicate with every single athlete on their team in a personable way,” said Giffin. “We all tend to perceive communication a little bit differently. There are so many benefits towards building a well functioning team, just because you are able to build a bit of a bridge between that coach and that athlete.”
But talk takes time.
According to Giffin and many others, it’s a time commitment that the sports community, that society, in general, can ill-afford to bypass. “I really like to have a close relationship with teams, just because it gives you so much more access,” he stated. “I’m willing to share stories with the teams and they’re willing to share stories with me and there’s an open relationship.”
Like the freshman who stepped on to the pitch at Laurentian University just under a decade ago, Cole Giffin is still quite early in the process of garnering a thorough understanding of the field which now captivates his every waking moment. He is not without reason for optimism.
“It’s kind of blossomed into a good start to a career,” he acknowledged. “I have access to recently published research all the time, likely before a lot of this information becomes mainstream. I think we are doing a great job of raising awareness towards mental health, which is a great foundation to build off of.”
“But we’re not seeing a lot of results, a lot of tangible evidence that everyone’s mental health is improving.”
“To be blunt, more emphasis has to be put on individual development rather than societal development. That’s where there is a little bit of a divide right now, in terms of mental health awareness, but I think we will get there.”