Canadian soccer goalie Stephanie Labbé relishes mental health challenges

Stephanie Labbé battles with depression and she enjoys it.

If that’s a perplexing concept, consider that Labbé is a professional athlete. She lives for competition and thrives on challenges. For her, every moment is a chance to improve herself.

“I’m enjoying the struggle,” she says, ”and I’m enjoying how I’m able to grow and really learn from it every single day.”

But it wasn’t always that way.

It was in 2008 that Labbé was first called up to Canada’s national women’s soccer team. Then just 20 years old, she was Canada’s third-string goalkeeper behind Karina LeBlanc and Erin McLeod, and didn’t see much action.

At first, this wasn’t a problem. She was getting the chance to practise alongside some of her idols, and they taught her a lot about what it means to be a professional both on and off the field. Meanwhile, things with her pro club were going well.

As time wore on, though, Labbé’s outlook grew darker.

In 2012, she had joined a new team in Sweden and didn’t know anyone. She was an ocean away from her parents, family and friends. Still unable to make the starting lineup on the national team on a consistent basis, Labbé made a big decision: she simply walked away from the Canadian national team.

“I was just at a point where waking up every day was a struggle,” she recalls. “Coming out of every training session and wanting to cry, and having no confidence, not believing in myself … and it’s kind of this vicious cycle of focusing on all these things that I couldn’t control and it was just eating away at me and pulling me down and I just wasn’t happy anymore.”

That summer, the national team won the country’s first-ever women’s soccer medal, a bronze, at the London Olympics. Without her.

Even if she was unlikely to have played, she could have been there. She would have been part of things. And she wasn’t. It was a massive moment in Canadian women’s soccer, and she missed out. She started to close herself off from the world.

“I really started to feel like I was negative weight on other people around me, so I think that’s why I went internal,” she says. ”I was sick of hearing myself complain, and I was sick of crying to other people and feeling like I was bringing other people down.”

Quietly, Labbé decided that she had to fix her own mentality.

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Stephanie Labbe, centre, says she always looked up to fellow Canadian keepers Erin McLeod, left, and Karina LeBlanc, right. (Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images)

Good habits

Her confidence returned gradually. She took up yoga and started practising mindfulness training. She got regular playing time in her professional league, and began to establish herself as a well-known name in the soccer world. She wasn’t worried about being pulled after making mistakes. Her skills strengthened.

Fast forward to 2016, and Labbé has just finished backstopping the Canadian national women’s team to a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics — a triumphant return. If this were a fairy tale, this is the part where the story would end. But real life is never so simple.

Many Olympic athletes experience depression following the Games, since everything they have prepared for over four years is suddenly over. Not only did Labbé experience that, but she found herself once again not getting playing time on her club team, this time with the Washington Spirit of the NWSL.

Old feelings started to return. She found herself breaking some of the good habits she had developed, like regular yoga practice.

Only this time, she was prepared.

“I’ve really learned to build this inner strength and inner confidence of knowing that I can get through anything because I know what I’ve pushed through in the past,” she says. “I was more interested in hearing other people’s stories and hearing how I wasn’t alone in my struggle, and that other people have gone through the same thing, and getting advice through them and how they went through it, and I think that’s what really helped me.”

Today, Labbé continues to struggle with her mental health, but now she knows it’s OK to let others know. She uses her support network of teammates, friends and family.

“I’m much more open to talking about it, and I’m really proud of how I’ve gotten through it how I’ve been a lot more open about it this time and open to different people and different strategies for getting through it.”

The struggle continues, but Labbé is enjoying it.

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