Movember Tyler McGregor
Tyler McGregorImage by: Max Rosenstein
Movember Tyler McGregor
5 August 2021

Tyler McGregor On Balancing Mental Health As A Paralympian

6 minutes read time

Canadian Paralympian Tyler McGregor is no stranger to overcoming mental health challenges, especially after being diagnosed with bone cancer at 15 and having his left leg amputated in the same year.

With the OIympics upon us, Tyler takes a seat in the barber chair and reflects on what inspired him to become an athlete, balancing mental health while representing Canada in the Paralympics, what it means to pull on the jersey again this year and much more.

What inspired you to become an athlete?

From an early age, I’ve loved sport for everything that it provides. When I was young, that was a simple passion for hockey itself - something that I had fun with and enjoyed doing with friends. As I got older, what inspired me more and more was the challenge and opportunity it provided to constantly grow, evolve and improve both as an individual and within a team.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome them?

Without a doubt, being diagnosed with bone cancer at 15 and having my left leg amputated within two months of my 16th birthday completely changed the trajectory of my life. For a while, I thought that meant the end of my hockey career was inevitable. I felt completely stripped of my identity and insecure about who I was. During my nine months of chemotherapy I spent most of that time in isolation to protect my health, with the exception of being with my family, doctors, nurses, and other cancer patients in the hospital.. Reflecting back, it was an extremely lonely time. I relied heavily on the people I was able to spend that time with to overcome those challenges. Once I learned to walk again with a prosthetic and was at a point where I was healthy enough to exercise again, I was able to rebuild my confidence and sense of self.

What are some strategies you’d recommend to someone who might be experiencing similar challenges in their life?

Being active and maintaining relationships with people you can talk to and turn to for help is so important when dealing with any challenge. However, I’ve found that meditation is one of the most important tools I use regularly to stay present and grounded. I also find tremendous value in reading and learning from others through their similar or different experiences. It isn’t necessarily ‘one size fits all’ when discussing ways to deal with any mental health challenge, so I do think it’s important to discover what strategies work for you.

How do you balance your personal life with the demands of competing at the Paralympic level?

What’s always been the most challenging is that I’m someone who thrives in a routine, and balancing personal life with training and travelling while preparing for the Paralympics doesn’t always allow for proper balance and routine. Spending weeks at home establishing a routine and then leaving for a week or two for training or a competition and living out of a suitcase can be pretty disruptive. I’ve started to get a better sense of what that healthy balance looks like as I’ve gotten older. Returning home from travelling after training or competition is when I take advantage of the opportunity to rest and ensure I spend quality time with the important people in my life.

You’ve won two medals for Canada in the Paralympics so far - how did it feel to be representing Canada then and how does it feel now on your way to Beijing?

Representing Canada is something special. It’s been one of my life’s greatest honours. Especially as time passes by, now heading into my third Paralympic Games, I have so much gratitude for this opportunity to compete while representing Canada. Especially after such a difficult year and a half throughout COVID, being able to pull on the jersey again at the Paralympics will be extra special.

How do you mentally prepare to compete in the Paralympics? What impact does competition have on your mental health and vice versa, your mental health on your performance?

For these Paralympics as well as our World Championships that just passed, much of the mental preparation I’m doing right now is about visualization. We’ve had limited opportunity to compete over the past couple years, so one of the ways in which I need to prepare is to try and create game scenarios mentally. I also think it’s important to try and stay as present as possible when preparing for the Games. It’s easy to get lost in the spectacle both in the lead up and while competing. Meditation will likely be my best friend from now until then to ensure I stay in the moment. There’s already been several days since turning the page from the World Championships in June towards Beijing that I’ve felt overwhelmed.

One of the biggest mental health challenges I’ve faced in my life came as a result of competition. Leading up to competing in the 2018 Paralympics, I tied my entire self-worth to winning a gold medal. When we lost in heartbreaking fashion in overtime, I started to doubt everything about myself, my life and my hockey career.

Alternatively, winning has the ability to drastically improve your mental health, although only temporarily. What I’ve learned is that, regardless of whether you win or lose, your mental health is most important. The result is temporary, but your mental health is something you need to continuously work on.

How are you prioritizing your mental health right now?

I find the offseason the most challenging time to prioritize my mental health. It completely disrupts the routine I’ve established for myself throughout the season when I’m at the rink training everyday. The summer months pull you in a million different directions and can often be more overwhelming than relaxing. Although it’s not something I’ve completely mastered, I’m prioritizing my mental health by ensuring I’m selective with my time and energy and that it’s being invested into what’s important right now: my girlfriend, family, friends, and all the important relationships in my life.

Movember’s Breaking the Ice program teaches young athletes the skills and knowledge that underpin good mental health and resilience. How important do you think resilience is for an athlete?

Being an athlete often requires you to be adaptable and overcome different types of adversity. Sometimes that comes in the form of results, injuries, or in-game circumstances that are out of your control. Being resilient helps us prepare for these challenges to face them with courage and strength and not let them overwhelm or control the direction of where we go when facing them.

You’ve referenced Terry Fox as your hero and have done some amazing fundraising for his foundation - what are some lessons Terry taught you that are relevant to your life?

Terry Fox taught me the meaning of compassion and determination. His complete selflessness to run a marathon every single day on a prosthetic leg to raise money and awareness to find a cure for cancer is beyond incredible. He never wanted the attention he ended up receiving, he just wanted to help young children battling cancer. Because of the courage he showed in doing so, he’s a big part of the reason I’m still alive today. So I believe one of the most valuable lessons he taught me is how valuable life is and to try and find value and gratitude in every day, regardless of how challenging it may get at times.

Knowing what you know now and the experiences you went through, what would you say to your younger self?

My younger self used to look at working on mental health only as something to focus on if things aren’t going well or if I’m struggling. Looking at things with that perspective left me unprepared to deal with certain challenges, and ultimately made certain things more difficult for me to deal with. I think it’s important to work on yourself and your own mental health at all times, to be better prepared and ready to deal with whatever challenge comes your way rather than scramble to address them when they arise. That’s one thing my younger self would have benefited tremendously from.