Inspired by teammates and their passion for the cause, Danny Zhilkin, a gold medallist with Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team at the 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship, and his partner Lauren Shoss have launched Zhilkin’s Vision, a non-profit organization that strives to destigmatize mental health among athletes. The goal of the initiative is to raise awareness about mental health within the sports community and promote the prioritization and accessibility of mental health resources for athletes of all ages.
For World Mental Health Day, Zhilkin and Shoss spoke with HockeyCanada.ca about why they started their organization, what it is like working together as a couple on the initiatives, and their goals for the future.
Hockey Canada (HC): Why did you decide to start Zhilkin’s Vision?
Danny Zhilkin (DZ): We wanted to do something like this for a while ever since [I joined] my first OHL team in 2019. We just didn’t get to it, and we thought this is the perfect time to make it happen. I think I was inspired by former Guelph Storm captains—Garrett McFadden with his McFadden’s Movement, Cam Hillis with the Hillis Foundation he has. Cam Hillis was the captain in my rookie season, so he was a bigger inspiration there. When he started [his foundation], I was participating in that. I think it’s great to let athletes see how mental health is a big thing in sports.
Lauren Shoss (LS): Mental health is something that I’ve always been very passionate about. I’ve also always loved sports, specifically dance and hockey. So when it came to school, I was presented with this opportunity to study sports psychology here at Boston University and [it was] the perfect hybrid of mental health and sports. … For both of us, based on our personal experiences, based on our passion for mental health, based on what I am doing for my studies and for my future career, it really made sense to us to advocate for mental health and sports and the de-stigmatization of mental health in this community that we’ve both been a part of for our entire lives.
HC: Why is it important to destigmatize mental health conversations with athletes?
DZ: Everybody sees us as just on the ice and performing. They see us score the big goals, but they don’t really see what’s going on inside our heads. You might play well, but something’s going on at home or at school. Even if you’re not playing great, it’s OK not to be OK. Mental health is such a big part in hockey.
LS: I think sports in general bring up a lot of very unique, stressful factors that can impact someone’s mental health. I think the role that sports play in someone’s life and the identity that people in sports tend to create for themselves or their athletic identity can really have a severe impact on their mental health. … I think there’s this label placed on athletes [that] you can’t struggle. You can’t be emotionally having a rough time. You can’t have a bad day. You can’t make a mistake. It's like we expect them to be invincible all the time, and this created an atmosphere where conversations about mental health, where people can be open about the fact that they’re struggling, are not really allowed to happen, and it creates a culture of silence. … If they do speak up, there’s fear of a negative consequence, fear of judgement, and that leads to things like people having to leave their sport for their mental health [or] a mental health crisis. Those are all things that are so preventable if we just take the steps to make those conversations more accepted in this community.
Coming to our game on Friday, October 7th? Visit the Zhilkin's Vision booth in section 115 to donate and be entered into the signed jersey raffle in support of CMHA-WW. Read more ➡️ https://t.co/jQJW6foh8X#ZhilkinsVision | @ZhilkinDanny pic.twitter.com/xUFpscgDr7— Guelph Storm (@Storm_City) October 5, 2022
HC: How has mental health impacted your journey in sports?
DZ: I think I felt that more in my draft year last season. I had to perform night in and night out, every single night, and there’s a pressure of the draft year. You’re scared you’re not going to perform well or get those points. I prioritized my mental health there, and just went for walks or talked to my sports circle and that helped me along with the season. … I think the longer you keep it inside of you, the worse of an effect it has on you. I think that’s one of the biggest things, if something’s bothering you, if you get help sooner, I think it’s going to benefit you a lot more.
LS: On the dance front, I think body image, eating disorders, perfectionism and performance anxiety are all really prevalent. In terms of hockey, I grew up with a brother who played hockey. As they got older and progressed into higher levels of the sport, [there was] just a lot of pressure at a very young age and an expectation to be able to deal with it without ever really talking about how. … So many of them were struggling with the pressure of the draft, of being put in the spotlight from such a young age and had no one to go to. … They’re two very different sports, but similar nevertheless.
HC: What has it been like working as a couple on this initiative?
DZ : It’s awesome. [Lauren is] about to graduate from Boston University this year, she loves what she does. She takes the sport psychology side of things, and she knows what she’s doing. She’s a super smart woman, she’s a great partner and I can’t wait to see what we’re doing in years to come.
LS: It’s definitely the first time in our relationship that we’re stepping into more business planning logistics, but I feel like the two of us have strengths that definitely complement one another. I’m very organized, I like to have things planned out, so I keep him on top of things. He has connections with a lot of people who have been instrumental in helping us get started with this, like his [former] team in Guelph and the Jets as well. … It’s a really exciting thing to navigate together. We’re really proud of it and also really proud of each other.
HC: What goals do you want to achieve with Zhilkin’s Vision?
DZ: We’re looking to hopefully get involved with Project 11 out in Winnipeg. Being drafted by Winnipeg, that’s a big thing that they have out there. And just expanding more. … I think if we touched one person already, that’s a huge step for our organization. The biggest goal is to fund athletes’ sport psychologist sessions.
LS: We recognize a really big barrier to mental health resources, especially in sport, is a financial one. A sports psych session, it’s not uncommon for them to run upwards of $200 an hour… for a lot of people, that’s not exactly accessible. … What we’re really trying to be able to do is make those resources a bit more accessible so people have the ability to seek mental health support and so that we’re raising awareness about how important and impactful that can be. And then, as Danny progresses into his hockey career, we’re hoping to make it more of a national organization.
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