Montana Wright started officiating sort of by accident. He remembers trying it out, “just because”. He continued to officiate throughout his teenaged years and became more attached to it as he progressed through the ranks at Peninsula Minor Hockey Association. Montana was a busy, social teenager: he was student council president and valedictorian, and a talented musician. He was trained in piano and trombone and taught himself to play guitar and drums, as well as sing. Despite everything else, Montana always made time for hockey. As a seventeen-year-old player, Montana would play for his local “B” team, finish the game, immediately strip off his gear, put on his jersey and referee the “A” team’s game. In 2016, at the age of seventeen, Montana had the opportunity to attend the U16 BC Cup in Salmon Arm. In 2017, he moved to Delta and established himself working the local Major Midget AAA and Junior B leagues.
“I’d have anxiety attacks and I always thought, ‘oh, that’s just a part of life’… and then I realized ‘oh, no this is actually a really bad thing!”
Montana was always “an overthinker”; a victim of “analysis paralysis.” He remembers that as an issue in middle school, which continued into high school. Around that same time, Montana began having anxiety attacks but it never occurred to him that it wasn’t normal. His anxiety began to increase during senior year of high school but he was able to keep it under control. Montana was busy with school and extracurricular activities and that helped him focus on the task at hand, not on his anxiety. However, that wasn’t a viable long-term strategy.
In his first year after graduating from high school, Montana’s anxiety increased dramatically. His parents had moved to Delta and Montana was living alone. With fewer demands on his time, Montana found he was unable to escape his anxiety. He was always worried and that anxiety would turn into frustration and anger. He couldn’t distract himself and the more he thought about it, the worse it became.
“My brain just wouldn’t work right [and] I was mad at God… for lots of things but especially that… and I let that anger take over my relationships with Him and with other people.”
Montana isolated himself from others. His anxiety was straining his friendships and relationships and he felt that the solution would be to take more time to himself. He figured that he always been extroverted, so maybe introversion was the solution. As it turned out, isolating himself created more problems than it solved.
As Montana felt increasingly out of control, he tried to stabilize his life as much as possible. He tried to make things fit neatly “as they were supposed to” but when that didn’t work, his life felt even more unstable. One example of this was his relationship. Montana had been in a serious relationship during this time, and he had it decided in his mind that this was it. This relationship worked for him, they would eventually get married, and that it would work out. That decision created a temporary feeling of safety. However, when she ended the relationship shortly after, it was the final stressor that eventually caused Montana to “shut down”.
“How do I lead people honestly… without saying, ‘here’s my crap,’ and putting that on people? I don’t know. I still don’t know.”
Montana knew he couldn’t overcome this on his own. He wanted help and he had a few people in his life who cared for him and were able to help him access professional counselling. Although his anxiety held him back from actually making the appointment. He would sit there with the phone in his hand and look at the number and couldn’t bring himself to actually dial the number.
At the time, Montana was working in positions of leadership within his church and he wanted to be open about what he was going through. He struggled with how to be honest without being overly-disclosing. Montana felt like his leadership wasn’t good enough. He tried to strike a balance between asking people to hold him accountable and off-loading responsibility to others. He tried medication but it didn’t work for him. What did help was counselling and a counsellor that helped Montana contextualize his anxiety and express what he had felt for a long time.
“If you want to excel, you don’t want to show weakness… and people try not to think about mental health as a weakness but you also can’t be making excuses for your performance.”
While counselling helped him, anxiety continued to invade every corner of Montana’s life, including his officiating. He would “verbal diarrhea” when talking to supervisors and would later agonize over whether he was coming across as off-putting or “weird.” When he attended the U16 BC Cup, he was assigned to a consolation game; the 5th place versus 6th place game on the final day of the tournament. Montana thought his performances during the week were strong and was expecting to receive an assignment to a medal game. When he received a consolation assignment, it caused feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty to bubble up to the surface.
That anxiety adversely affected Montana’s performance in that final game; his last chance to make a positive impression on the High Performance staff. He came off the ice after the first half thinking that he had been authoritative and had taken charge of a game where the players were crossing the line. In reality, he was over-officiating and calling the game so tight that the players were becoming frustrated. He heard this from his supervisors and he was caught off guard. Montana was so shaken that he went out for the second half and left his whistle in the room. He came off the ice at the end of the game distraught. Montana didn’t want to disclose his anxiety because he feared that his supervisors would perceive him as making excuses. However, that meant that he had no explanation for his erratic performance, which reflected poorly on his officiating ability. Montana spent the days following BC Cup wondering if he had ruined his officiating career.
“I still feel bad because I tried as best as I could but it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t what [my colleagues and friends] deserved.”
Montana recognizes that officiating can be an amazing, supportive community. However, if you’re not “in” the group, so to speak, officiating can be a very singular occupation. In his hometown, Montana was working regularly with the same group of people. However, when he moved to the Greater Vancouver area, he was working with a much larger group of officials; some of whom lived as far as two and a half hours away from each other. Montana did not have any close relationships within his new officiating community, so that adjustment was difficult. In a community that is so spread out, the only way to build relationships is to build relationships over time and Montana struggled to do that.
“Let’s just hang out and do something and if we get to chat at a deeper level, we can chat.”
Montana believes that we can all make the effort to be open to others reaching out just to chat. Montana tries to push himself to have “intentional” conversations with others, regardless of the closeness of their relationship. If people feel that they can have a real conversation without having to explicitly say, ‘hey, I need advice’ or ‘I need help with this’, that will help build solid relationships. If people allow those relationships to build over time, Montana believes that will put them in a situation where serious conversations can occur when needed.
“When [officials] are at the rink, we’re in game mode… and then we go home. So if we’re not intentional about building those relationships with our teammates, then we can’t expect that people will be open when it matters.”
Montana envisions an officiating community that both creates space for people to be successful and respected as individual officials while also valuing people as individuals with emotional and social needs. He isn’t against the conventional wisdom that you show up, keep your head down, and do your job. Montana believes that the officiating community has the ability build on the values of performance and success to support their fellow officials through whatever life has in store.
On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Montana’s story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.