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Lessons in sport go beyond the court

Volleyball coach talks importance of fostering mental health
Volleyball coach Holly Mercer credits the game with saving her own mental health. Now, she hopes to bolster youth’s confidence through coaching. Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo

Holly Mercer loves volleyball.

She even met her husband, Robert Kabvitok, through the sport.

So when the Rankin Inlet athlete was struggling with the demands of parenting, she knew there was one outlet she could rely on.

“Volleyball was my only thing that I could forget about everything at home,” she said. “It really helped me keep my sanity.”

She and Kabvitok have been teaching girls’ volleyball for years now, as well as being involved in other sports in the community. As time went on, she found there was more to coaching than the physical skills.

“At first we were just coaching the sport, and then by year three we started to really realize mental health is needed in sports too and it would help them throughout life,” said Mercer.

Youth have to go to school, she said, but playing sport is something they choose to do. It’s a venue where she can challenge youth, celebrate their achievements and help them develop not just as athletes, but as people.

Overcoming fears in sport can help one overcome fears in other pursuits in life, said Mercer, as well as building resilient people with an openness to trying new things.

“That’s one of the most rewarding things is not only watching them grow in the sport but grow as people,” she said.

And if a player is making mistakes on the court and becoming scared of having the ball come their way, Mercer encourages them to learn from the last play but forget about it quickly and to want the ball to come to them.

“You have to learn to forget about your mistake and learn from it,” she said about coaching. “That’s the only way you can change it to a positive.”

Part of that is showing the players that the coaches aren’t perfect either, she added, and that they are always open to suggestions as well.

Mercer said the pandemic presented a big challenge for youth in sports, many of whom turned to games or TV.

“That really hurts,” said Mercer, thinking about youth who haven’t returned to sports, which provide such a great outlet for young people.

She was glad to see the Coaching Association of Canada launch a mental health and sport resource hub earlier this year to equip coaches with the tools and information to help them learn how to integrate positive mental health practices into their sport and further support their local communities. The hub includes resources available in Inuktitut, Dene, and Cree in addition to six other languages.

“I’m just really happy,” said Mercer, adding northerners are often left out of such initiatives.

“We have enough problems here with the amount of suicide. Nobody in Nunavut who lives here hasn’t been touched by suicide. I think if we can get the kids and adults into sports and talking to them and letting them learn that mistakes are okay, if we try to start young and let them learn that, we’d be better off.”