Stephanie Labbé, whose heroics in goal helped Canada win gold at the Tokyo Olympics, says she could not train for part of the Games because of "high levels of anxiety and multiple panic attacks."
The 34-year-old from Stony Plain, Alta., who has shared her mental health struggles in the past, has opened up again to publicize FIFPRO’s “Are You Ready To Talk” — a mental health awareness program from the organization representing 65,000 pro footballers worldwide.
A rib injury forced Labbé out of Canada's opening game against host Japan at the Olympics. Ultimately the verdict was she could continue playing, albeit in pain. Labbé missed just one game, returning to lead Canada to penalty shootout wins over Brazil in the quarterfinal and Sweden in the final.
But it came with a cost, as Labbé explains in an essay, released by FIFPRO, titled "Winning the Olympics isn’t enough to cure mental health."
"I had no idea that this injury would trigger an underlying vulnerability in my mental state," Labbé wrote. "My adrenalin was so heightened, and my neuromuscular system was so finely tuned that I struggled to come down between games, which resulted in high levels of anxiety and multiple panic attacks. It got to the point where I couldn’t train between the quarters (quarterfinals) and the final because I was so overstimulated."
Labbé said she knew it was not performance anxiety.
"Looking back, I realize that it was a buildup of everything that I had experienced over the last year — the pandemic, the change of coaching staff, the lack of clarity over my position in the team — getting to the Olympics wasn’t just a magical cure for all of this." she said.
"When that final whistle blew and we won gold I was expecting overwhelming relief, but it just didn’t come. No matter how much I wanted to relax and celebrate with my teammates I just couldn’t climb back down from that heightened state of awareness, and I basically spent the 48 hours following the final lying in a dark room."
Labbé, who recently moved to French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, has previously detailed dark times in 2012 and after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In 2012, while she felt fine with her club side, time with the national team took its toll. So she stepped away, missing the 2012 Olympics where Canada won bronze.
After winning bronze at the 2016 Rio Games, she started having the same feelings with her Washington Spirit club side. In September 2017, the Spirit announced Labbé was taking a medical leave for the remainder of the NWSL season.
Labbé says after the Rio bronze, she "couldn’t wait to get home and share my achievement with as many people as I could."
"However, when it actually came to everyone clamouring to see the medal and talking about the experience — I began to feel empty inside. I started to feel that this piece of metal was worth more than I was as a person, and I think this began a spiral for me. With no immediate competition in the near future I started to feel my motivation drain."
She says over time she "learned to find the balance in my mind between what I had achieved and what I am worth, and I came to treasure my medal once again — especially when I consider how hard I worked, both physically and mentally, to get to that point in my career."
Labbé notes while that the issue of mental health has been highlighted recently by gymnastics star Simone Biles and tennis ace Naomi Osaka, "the problem is that when a mental health challenge comes along it can be much harder to recognize and express."
"Mental illness is so hard to define. It’s not like an umbrella diagnosis that everyone can fall under, and even one person can have two completely contrasting experiences from it. That’s why initiatives like FIFPRO’s 'Are You Ready To Talk; are so important — it gives players the tools and resources to deal with the mental challenges that they can come up against in their careers.
"Sometimes it feels like our mental health is directly linked to our performance on the pitch, and while I understand that it is of course a factor — it’s not the whole picture. Once the trophy has been lifted, and the fans have all stopped applauding — there’s the potential for a player to feel their lowest. It is at this point when we need the support the most, when we’re simply human beings.”
In launching its mental health program in June, FIFPRO said its research shows that up to 38 per cent of footballers suffer from mental health symptoms during their career — and that the number of players experiencing difficulties increased during the pandemic.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press