Convocation Profile: Sydney Dawes

Entering into the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Kinesiology program, Sydney Dawes was looking forward to starting on the path towards a career in a public health setting, but the first year of balancing school and Pandas Rugby proved to be more of a struggle than she had anticipated.

“The mix of all-day classes, assignments, projects, practice, team meetings, games and weekend tournaments was a lot to handle. It was a tough transition right out of high school. I actually closed out my first year of school very close to being placed on academic probation,” said Dawes.

Dawes had always succeeded academically. After having a tough first year, as many university students do, she began to change the way she studied. She was able to boost her GPA to a 3.9 by her third year. It was not long after she had decided to pursue a masters in Physical Therapy, knowing she was capable of doing so with her determination to achieve. However, maintaining a high academic standing as well as performing well athletically became a challenge. She began to struggle with her mental health, likely a consequence of several concussions.

It first started in the classroom. As a result of post-concussion symptoms, Dawes found sensory distractions like bright lights and loud noises began to impede her ability to concentrate on lectures. This inability to focus on her school work added to her frustrations of managing both academics and athletics. The coming emotional and mental struggles then began to translate onto the rugby pitch. 

Rugby is a physically demanding sport, and Dawes gives it her all. She sustained a series of concussions throughout high school, and suffered another major one during her third varsity season, causing her to miss an entire year of eligibility. 

Dawes admitted she tends to be quite hard on herself. After she returned from the concussion, she found herself feeling as if she was getting progressively worse. Her first full practice back she recalls getting very upset with any small mistakes, such as failing to make a good pass.

“I would actually have to head to the sidelines so I could take a minute and regain my confidence before getting back to practice.”

Dawes was continually frustrated with her struggles, and began to feel the physical effects that come along with mental health challenges. She was exhausted all the time, falling asleep almost anywhere and at any time. The people closest to her knew something was not right.

Klaudia Sapieja is the mental skills coach for the Green & Gold Sport System, and works closely with Pandas Rugby, along with many of the other varsity sports. Dawes had met with Klaudia to discuss some mental skills following her concussions. 

“She helped me develop some coping strategies for my perfectionist tendencies and for my difficulty staying focused and regaining focus quickly, especially under pressure.”

From the introduction of the coping strategies to providing resources such as books and articles involving other athletes overcoming adversity, the support Klaudia provided Dawes was instrumental. In spite of all this, something still was not quite right, so Sapieja referred her to a therapist.

It was during these sessions that Dawes was able to dig deeper into the physical, mental and emotional conflicts she was experiencing. She was also surrounded by an incredible support system of friends, teammates and professors who enabled her to overcome the stigma that is often associated with mental health challenges in high performance athletes. She was finally comfortable with speaking up and making some important decisions for her overall health and future career.

“I knew something was wrong for a long time, and I realized my biggest hurdle was simply speaking up about my situation,” she said. “The people around me played a crucial role in helping me overcome the fear of admitting something was indeed wrong.”

“Once I was able to have that realization, I made one of the most important decisions of my life to-date.”

In her fifth year, Dawes made the tough decision to retire from rugby. She said that despite her resiliency, she knew her struggles would continue if she were to sustain any more head injuries.

“It wasn’t easy to walk away from something I love so much, the sport has become a part of who I am over the years, but being mentally and emotionally healthy became my priority.”

With this decision made, Dawes could now focus on her studies even more. She knew she still wanted to pursue a masters of  Physical Therapy. She had become fascinated with the human body—particularly the rehabilitation process—even volunteered as a Student Kinesiologist with Varsity Health, working with the Golden Bears Football team in the final year of her undergraduate degree.

As Dawes reflects back on her time as an undergraduate student, she said she can’t help but feel an enormous amount of fulfillment. 

“Both mental and physical injuries are equally important. You can’t have an athlete playing with a broken foot,” she said. “You also can’t have an athlete performing at their peak when they’re not mentally healthy.”

“I understand the hesitancy of athletes to speak up about mental health struggles. The fear of being treated differently or facing repercussions because of these challenges is real, although I think sport has come a long way in being more supportive of athletes who are struggling.”

She added since speaking up about her challenges, her life has become much more mentally and emotionally healthier.

“It’s hard to take that first step, but believe me when I say that the moment you do, you will know it was one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.”