Wheelchair rugby star Zak Madell overcomes burnout

Canadian star took a much-needed break post-Rio 2016 from being a full-time athlete 26 May 2020
Male wheelchair rugby player moves with ball in his lap
Zak Madell took a long break from wheelchair rugby after the Rio 2016 Paralympics
ⒸGetty Images
By Beau Greenway | For the IPC

After representing Canada in wheelchair rugby for six years, Zak Madell was exhausted to the point that he needed an extended break due to burnout.

Madell, now 26, burst on the scene to help his country reach the gold medal game at the London 2012 Paralympics. 

But four years later at Rio 2016, the former powerhouse Canada struggled through the tournament and missed the podium for just the second time at a Paralympics, falling to Japan in the battle for bronze.

Madell felt like he had the ‘weight of the world’ on his shoulders.

“I had started playing rugby with team Canada at only 16 years of age, so by the time Rio was finished I had already devoted six years of my life to rugby and it consumed most of my time, effort and attention during that period,” Madell said.

“It was at a point where I had moved away from my hometown for an improved training environment. That meant that the only people I knew there were people from rugby, and so even more of my life was based around sport. 

“It was just a tough adjustment not seeing family and close friends very often.”

After the disappointing fourth-place finish in London, Madell decided to step back from competitive sport.

“Being 100 per cent honest, I was just burnt out,”

“I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a break and focus on school,” he said.

In that time out from wheelchair rugby, Madell obtained his diploma in architectural technology at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. He still played wheelchair rugby recreationally and was also involved in basketball and tennis to stay in shape.

Eventually, he felt a calling to return.

“The main thing I missed were the people I’ve grown close with across Canada and the globe,” Madell said. 

“I think this time I am coming back with a fresh new perspective and looking forward to the year ahead.

“I have made sure to find more balance in my life this time around, and to have a different mindset and to not allow myself to feel the pressure of sport at this level.

“We have also brought a new sport psychologist on board with the team to help us find new strategies to help deal with any adversity that we may come across.”

The timing could not be any better for Madell’s comeback as Canada looked to capture one of the final two spots at Tokyo 2020 at the qualification tournament in early March.
They did, along with France just a few weeks before the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Teammate Trevor Hirschfield expressed the importance of having Madell back in the squad.

“Zak plays a key role within our team as a leader and mentor. As a former MVP, having his experience and rugby IQ back in our line-ups has elevated the performance of Wheelchair Rugby Canada,” Hirschfield said.

“We have seen a youthful resurgence in our team's core group since Zak’s education vacation. 

“With his return, his role has grown. Being a player that athletes inspire to be, his sense of humour and sociable personality makes it easy for our younger athletes to seek that mentorship.”