When it comes to mental health, we are all on the same team

by Chris O'Leary

When a basketball fan hears the name Brian Shaw, their mind might automatically turn to the lob-throwing cog in the Lakers’ dynastic wheel of the early 2000s. 

For the Toronto Raptors, the name carries a different weight but it’s been an important one for them through these past four seasons. 

Dr. Brian Shaw joined the Raptors at the start of the 2017-18 campaign as their team psychologist. A Toronto native that played basketball as a kid and loved the game his whole life, Shaw’s career has been a rich, rewarding and sports-heavy one. He’s the co-director of the NHL/NHLPA’s substance abuse and behavioural health program and he co-directs the behavioural health program for Major League Soccer. He’s worked for the Toronto Blue Jays and has worked individually with pro and Olympic-level athletes. Coming to the Raptors at the point in his career that he did, he said, has been the icing on the cake. 

His first year with the team saw a marked shift in the attention that mental health in the sports world received. Former Raptor DeMar DeRozan played a key part in that, when he opened up to the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith about his battles with mental health. 

DeRozan’s openness on mental health issues came as the public conversation about the topic had evolved with initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk, which has its 10th edition on Thursday, Jan. 28. 

“For anybody who's in the public eye to de-stigmatize mental health issues is enormously important,” Shaw said. 

“In hockey, we had Robin Lehner and Tyler Motte. We had Dak Prescott in football, Kevin Love and DeMar in basketball and there are others. The reason that it's important is the sense that when other people are looking at athletes, they tend to view themselves as invulnerable. Youth tend to look at themselves as invulnerable and openness to humanity, to being human is so important. 

“It just cuts through any of the biases and stigma because for the most part it's viewed as weakness. I mean, let's face it: In society, mental health is viewed as weakness when in fact, it's very much the opposite where the strength of the individual, like their self-criticism, or their drive, actually works against them. 

“I always say it's very much like an autoimmune disease where it's your mind working against you, as opposed to anything that would be viewed as weakness or being babyish.” 

Before the pandemic hit, Shaw was pretty well embedded with the team. He recalls a joyous feeling in his first week on the job, being around a sport that he’d long loved and seeing a great opportunity in front of him. 

“I think that one thing that the team would say is that I was the weird psychologist who would also pick up the towels,” he said. 

Actions like that emphasized role transition, which was the second part of a three-pronged approach that Shaw brought to the team. His other two approaches were team cohesion and energy management. 

“Everybody wants to play maximum minutes, score maximum points or be the best they can,” he explained. 

“My job, whether it was a player, whether it was the medical staff, whether it was the coaches, was to help them become better in their job. In role transition, people -- particularly players but also coaches who come with a certain expectation or desire or want -- have to learn to take a different role. That role has to be modeled. Everybody had a job to do and it didn't matter really how we got there, as long as we did it as a team.” 

Role acceptance can be a difficult thing when you get to the pro level of any sport. When you get to the highest level, the room is often full of players that have been the best of the best in their respective journeys. We have generations of players that grew up wanting to be like Mike, or that came up with the Mamba mentality. No one shoots on an empty court envisioning coming off of the bench, but those are necessary roles that every successful team fills. 

“It takes a shift in mindset so that you are moving from individual talent and expertise to the functioning of a team,” Shaw said. 

“It's so much like people in life, the expectations are managed against the realities. We’re all adapting and we're all having to cope with change and how you do that is a mental health skill.” 

Shaw’s career has overlapped with psychologist use both in everyday life and in the world of sports becoming increasingly mainstream. A generation ago it was unheard of for a DeMar DeRozan to share the difficulties they’re having, or for a player like Paul George to admit to dealing with depression and anxiety while in the bubble last season. 

Shaw is retiring at the end of this season and will pass the torch to Alex Auerbauch, the Raptors’ director of wellness and development. 

“I'm at an age and stage where if you talk to my family, they say I'll never retire,” Shaw said, laughing about what retirement might actually look like for him. 

“A very good friend of mine said, you know Brian, you're in good health until you're not. Right now I'm transitioning with the Raptors, which is important because the road is very tough as you get older.” 

Shaw will continue his work with the NHL and MLS programs, which centre on employee assistance and drug testing, but he’ll look to slow down a little bit. 

“To me, it's quality of life,” he said. “COVID hits that and I call this the transition role. I'm definitely doing a miniscule (amount) of what I used to do.” 

As he moves into a new stage in his career, Shaw is optimistic about what the future holds. 

“I think what I would like to see is that the use of psychology and mental wellness or mental health strategies can be employed for the betterment of society and particularly kids,” he said. 

“(If) kids and adolescents can see that athletes are using these strategies in order to improve both their life and their performance, then they are worth learning and that these coping strategies are worth learning just as much as reading and coding. We used to say reading and writing, but you know, between reading, coding and coping, you've got strategies for life and I hope that the athlete's experience will translate to the future generation.” 

If you’re dealing with any mental health issues and require assistance, please make use of the following resources: 

Kids help phone: 1-800-668-6868; kidshelpphone.ca/

The Canadian Mental Health Association: cmha.ca/ twitter.com/CMHA_NTL 

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: www.camh.ca/ 

Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health: www.camimh.ca 

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