Supporting our student athletes

Student athlete mentor Peter Soberlak shares how he’s improving sport culture

Karla Karcioglu, Roving Editor Ω

A box of tissues is a staple in Soberlak's office, as many students have shed tears of stress over the years. Karla Karcioglu/The Omega

A box of tissues is a staple in Soberlak’s office, since many students have shed tears of stress over the years. Karla Karcioglu/The Omega

Peter Soberlak has been employed with the TRU physical education department for 11 years. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UBC and a master’s in psychology of sport and physical activity from Queens, Soberlak has helped mentor and encourage a number of TRU WolfPack athletes who are struggling with pressure associated with life, academics and sport.

“I think athletes, particularly, feel that sense of credibility from me,” Soberlak said. “I’m not just talking about it – I’ve lived it.”

Soberlak had a successful career playing professional hockey. He played two seasons with the Kamloops Blazers from 1985 to 1987 before moving on to the Swift Current Broncos, where he won the memorial cup with the team in 1989. He was then drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round and finished off his career playing in the AHL with the Cape Breton Oilers.

“I understand that level of stress and commitment, the challenges that not only athletes face, but student athletes,” Soberlak said. “It’s tough to be a student athlete.”

“They have incredibly busy schedules and it’s hard to manage that,” Soberlak said.

Often athletes need help with anxiety, stress and time management, according to Soberlak.

He said it is easy for students to get stuck feeling like they can’t escape the pressures and that they need people to talk to and get reassurance from, which is a service he tries to provide to TRU athletes.

It’s not a formal job for Soberlak, but students continuously show up to talk to him and he is happy to provide support.

“The issues are often based on the stifling of communication,” Soberlak said. “These athletes just need to be able to talk things out and work things through and get reassurance.”

Athletes and coaches are often taught not to feel or to internalize feelings, according to Soberlak. “In the long run, that’s not healthy and that’s not something that’s effective,” he added.

Soberlak said it can be hard in the sport environment for athletes to find someone to talk to. He said coaches often maintain a traditional role providing strategy, training and skills but neglecting their mentorship role.  Soberlak said it is important for coaches to communicate, support and build relationships with athletes.

Athletes can also have a hard time turning to their teammates because they feel they’ll be judged.

Soberlak feels that it is important to be engaged with the athlete’s experience and their psycho-social development and mental health. He said there are resources in place on campus, but the demand is high enough that he could spend time listening to athletes’ concerns 24-7.

During Soberlak’s years as a hockey player, he experienced hardship, but it was the hazing, harassment and bullying that have left him determined to change the face of sport culture at TRU and in the greater community.

Soberlak said he is conscious of the sport environment and its context with hazing, bullying, abuse and harassment. He said he is very proactive when dealing with those aspects.

He works closely with his former Broncos teammate, Sheldon Kennedy, author of Why I Didn’t Say Anything, a book written about sexual abuse Kennedy experienced in the minors.

“When I look at athletes that are struggling I want to know why they are, and what we can do to help it be a better experience for everyone,” Soberlak said.

“I think it’s time to open the doors on all these organizations,” Soberlak said. “Times are changing. It’s a new culture and a new standard. We need to set the bar higher for proper coaching behaviour, proper locker room culture.”

Soberlak feels well-supported by TRU athletics director Ken Olynyk in his goals to promote a healthier sport culture on campus. He feels that the university could be a leader in the larger sporting community.

“I don’t think winning is our goal,” Soberlak said, “I think [our goal is] developing a positive sport experience, a healthy sport environment, that teaches young people to be good citizens, to be good students. And I think if you start there then I think the winning comes from that.”