Nunavut coach helps athletes navigate mental-health challenges

Cambridge Bay wrestling coach Chris Crooks volunteers with online Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub

Chris Crooks, right, embraces Eekeeluak Avalak after Avalak won a gold medal in wrestling at the Canada Summer Games in 2022. Crooks is emphasizing the importance of mental health in sport, and is part of a recently launched resource hub on mental health in sport. (File photo by Denis Cahill)

By David Lochead

This story was updated on Friday, May 26, at 11:15 a.m. ET

Beyond being a wrestling coach, Chris Crooks is a mentor.

He sees sport as a place where young athletes can open up about difficulty or trauma they have in their lives.

Crooks, 62, has been a coach for 40 years. After spending about 30 years as a teacher in southern Canada, he moved to Cambridge Bay with his wife, Paula, also a retired teacher, in 2015.

He volunteers with the recently launched Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub, a website that helps coaches incorporate mental health into sport. The hub includes resources in Inuktitut.

“I believe I’ve always understood the importance of mental health before I came up North,” Crooks said.

“But the significance of mental health in the North is much greater than the south.”

Youth in the North have to deal with factors like limited resources in areas like facilities and coaching, high rates of suicide, and intergenerational trauma that most kids living in the south do not face, he said.

Sport isn’t just an opportunity to travel and build confidence, said Crooks, it’s a place where kids can open up about the difficulties caused by trauma they have in their lives.

“We have team discussions about different issues, they range from suicide to family planning to financial planning to school,” Crooks said.

“We try to keep that open, inclusive approach.”

Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub has already made an impact, he said.

Two of his athletes recently went through deaths of people close to them and used the support network to talk through their grief. Both athletes have now been accepted into university as well, thanks to their involvement in sport, said Crooks.

He said it is important for coaches to listen to their athletes, and not pass judgment. It’s also important, with the competitiveness and high-intensity of sports, to teach athletes how they can mentally prepare for the activity itself.

Crooks coached Nunavut’s wrestling team at the Canada Summer Games last year, including Eekeeluak Avalak, who won the territory’s first-ever gold medal at the Games.

When they were at the Games, Crooks said they dealt with stress but focused on competing hard, and not necessarily on winning.

“The other thing I always stress is, whether you win or lose, what did you learn,” he added.

You can always be successful if you’re learning, Crooks said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Chris Crooks’s role with the Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub.

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(5) Comments:

  1. Posted by Anguttialook on

    Mr crooks is an assest to the community. Need more coaches like him to make a difference ,not enough like him in the artic…keep going don’t stop.cambay is extremely lucky to have him he should be honored

  2. Posted by Lalaa on

    Chris is such an amazing human being, he and his wife Paula has done so much, you 2 have made a huge impact on these kids who are now adults and thanks to you 2 they evolved to an amazing young people, all my respect to you Chris and Paula and my hats off to you 2 as well, keep up the great love and support because it absolutely looks beautiful on you 2.

  3. Posted by tuktuborel on

    Great Job Chris. I am sure you have helped a lot of kids during your coaching. Keep up the good work and on another matter leave a few fish for me.

  4. Posted by Yes on

    Glad Chris is getting the recognition he deserves, not only because of the gold medal victory but because of his advocating for sport and mental health.

    Snowmobile racing is fun but it is not a real sport and more of a hobby. It doesn’t release the same mental health fighting endorphins that physical exercise release.

    Alongside the cigarette and processed food epidemic, a sedentary lifestyle will put you in a horrible place. Thank you Chris for advocating for this and hopefully more young inuit start taking interest in sport.

    • Posted by Doesn’t Have to Be One or the Other on

      I don’t think its important what the activity is, but what supports are in place. I would find it difficult to argue that those guys do cross country racing for 2 hours aren’t getting the same endorphin releases as sports. What’s important is building the support system in place, would be cool to see the Racing Committees doing some training throughout the year and getting the kids and adults involved, doing fundraisers and such. It doesn’t matter if its snowmobile racing, drama club, dance, music, hunting. All these things can offer amazing mental health outlets, its just important these are set up to be programs as opposed to activities. They must be continuous and offer kids and adults consistency throughout the year. Most importantly the ability to transfer skills gained in these programs to their daily lives.


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