Tyler Smith speaks about the power of compassion and empathy in advance of World Mental Health Day.
A positive dressing room culture can turn a collection of individual players into a cohesive team. But it’s not just their will to win that brings them together. That bond only comes when players feel truly valued and are given the space to grow and develop their talents, according to Tyler Smith , a former hockey player with the Humboldt Broncos.
That’s a big reason why his time with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League club was so special. As much as the players were focused on winning games, they were also encouraged to figure out where their true passions lie, whether it was hockey or elsewhere. “We were allowed to be ourselves, to be comfortable in our skin. That really led to more success as a group.”
Smith says that it is easy for players to lose sight of their self-worth when success is measured through a daily barrage of stats, such as goals per game. But the Broncos coaching staff led by Darcy Haugan would “reassure players, whatever their strengths or weakness, we all had a role to play, and that it was appreciated.”
Many of the former centreman’s contributions extended beyond actual games played. “One of the best compliments I received was when a coach told me I was the ‘glue’ that helped keep the team together and bring out their best.” The Leduc, Alberta native took pride in his role, but it could also be a grind. Smith recalls a time when he “went quiet for a couple of days, facing an inner battle. I had a friends back home starting their lives, and I was just thinking ‘what am I doing here?'” The doubts were leading Smith down a dark path.
His teammates took note in the change in his demeanor. “People wanted to know how I was feeling, and what was going on in my head. They all wanted to help. Our captain even offered to ask Coach Darcy if I could have more ice time.” The way the team rallied around Smith, reaching out, listening, and offering their help made him realize that the best thing we can do is be there for each other.
Smith explains: “being able to recognize that something’s off and not shying away from having that conversation is really what allows us to move forward. That’s why finding a space where you can be compassionate and empathetic for the people around you is so important; whether it’s on a team, in the workplace or in the communities where we live.”
The former Bronco is now applying many of his experiences to the arena of life. Tyler encourages people to listen and be present for family and friends who are struggling with their mental health. He acknowledges the first step can be the hardest for those who are suffering. That is why he is a big supporter of the Be There program, supported by RBC Future Launch, and run by Jack.org . Be There provides people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to safely support anyone in need.
Smith knows firsthand how difficult it was to ask for help after he survived the horrific team bus crash that killed 16 members of the Broncos organization in 2018. He was 20 years old at the time. Smith focused on his physical rehabilitation, but admits he put his mental health on “the back burner.”
More than a year since the bus crash, and after leaving the team for good, Smith recalls hearing a song at a party that triggered a memory of one of the lost teammates.
“I would usually push things like this off, make sure everybody else was having a good time. But this time I acknowledged my pain, left the party and bawled my eyes out. Four or five of my biggest, burliest friends came out and sat with me. They instantly created a space that allowed me to recognize it’s okay not to be okay.”
That experience reminded him of the way his teammates would rally around each other in the dressing room. But his hockey days also taught Smith the importance of being accountable. If you create an environment where people feel no shame or fear for expressing how they feel, he explains, then you should do the same.
Put another way, it’s about taking ownership of your well-being and your overall mental health. “We all have mental health, it’s just a matter of if we’re having a good or bad mental health day,” says Emelia Horn, who oversees the Youth Mental Wellbeing program for RBC Future Launch. “The kind of conversations Smith wants to encourage us having are so important, especially now, as the pandemic has negatively impacted so many Canadians, including youth.”
There is no single formula for taking care of your own mental health. For Smith, it includes “doing something spontaneous once a day, getting a sweat on, immersing himself in music [he was listening to Frank Sinatra before the interview with RBC Stories] and staying connected with family and friends.” Therapy has and continues to help too.
Now, as a recent graduate of the Television Broadcasting program at the Northern Institute of Technology, Smith keeps a busy schedule as a public speaker and mental health advocate. He co-hosts a podcast with the Riley Sheahan , currently playing for the Buffalo Sabres, and continues to partner with RBC on a variety of education initiatives. Additionally, he has established a clothing brand, Not Alone Co., which support various mental health charities across Canada through a portion of the proceeds.
Hockey also remains a big part of Smith’s life in his adopted hometown of Calgary. Like the namesake of his hero, Sidney Crosby, he has become “The Kid” on a team whose average age is thirty years older than him. He also coaches a team of 11-12 year olds, something he had never imagined doing while a Bronco but, in a way, comes full circle back to the days when the Broncos’ coaches helped him thrive.
“My head coach and I want to create a dressing room where the kids can talk through the ups and downs of the game, or whatever else is on their minds.” After one practice, a mother reached out to Smith to say her boy told her ‘my coach suffers from anxiety too.’
It gave Smith huge amounts of satisfaction to hear her son speak so openly about the challenges he faces. “If I’m doing everything in my power to allow these kids to show their vulnerability without any sense of fear or failure, then its mission accomplished.”
This article was originally published by rbc.com .