There’s just something about mental health in athletes that gets in the way, making it a lot harder than it needs to be for professional athletes to open up about what they’re going through. As if stigma still looms large on mental illness, and being public figures only makes things worse. Nevertheless, those athletes who choose to share their struggles with the public create a profound impact on the sports industry.
During a sit-down interview with Good Housekeeping in 2022, the legendary Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, shared her thoughts on her choice to bow out of the team Olympic competition a year prior. She made it clear that her withdrawal wasn’t caused by a fleeting whim, but rather by the immense pressure and mental health struggles she was dealing with at the time. And even after a whole year had passed, she stood by the decision she made without an ounce of regret. In her own words, Biles said ‘As an athlete, you need to protect your mind and your body, rather just go out there and do what the world wants us to do and potentially injuring yourself. I had to put myself above all else.’
In her captivating and raw autobiography ‘In the Water, They Can’t See You Cry’, Olympic swimmer and sports icon, Amanda Beard, laid bare the silent battle she had with her mental health. Beard dealt not only with depression but also with self-esteem issues, self-harming, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
In the thought-provoking HBO documentary ‘The Weight of Gold’, which examines mental health in athletes, we witness an astonishing revelation from none other than Olympic swimmer extraordinaire Michael Phelps. In this film, Phelps speaks out about his personal struggles with drug use, ADHD, and depression. What’s truly striking is that even after phenomenal success he has achieved at the 2012 Olympics, in which he won four golds and two silvers, Phelps found himself drowning in despair, contemplating suicide.
This discovery begs the following question: If someone at the pinnacle of their athletic game, like Phelps, could reach such a dark place, how many others might have experienced similar thoughts and challenges?
In the sharing of elite athletes’ personal stories, domino effects occur. Other sports players suddenly realise they’re not alone in their struggles. It gives them the courage to step forward and seek help. And as more and more athletes come forward, publicly speaking about mental health issues, a shift happens—a shift that improves people’s mental health awareness.
After a while, it dawns on everyone that mental health in athletes has nothing to do with being invincible. It’s not about putting on a tough facade or pretending everything is peachy and keen. Instead, it’s about recognizing the significance of caring for your mind just as passionately and diligently as you do for your body. So, in order to be truly fit from the inside out, one must understand that mental well-being is an integral part of overall wellness.
The connection between mental well-being and optimal performance is widely recognized. When a person experiences changes in behaviour, attitudes, or emotions that negatively impact their thoughts, feelings, or actions, it is considered a mental illness. Athletes, like anyone else, can be affected by mental illnesses such as depression, which can significantly hinder their motivation to engage in practice, games, and daily activities. Aside from that, mental health issues can manifest themselves as physical problems. It is evident that no team or player can perform at their peak if mental health is not included in their wellness program.
Sure, exercise and sports do wonders for mental well-being. They boost self-esteem, provide social support, and foster connection. But even with all these benefits, athletes can still find themselves coping with mental health challenges. Being in this field means dealing with many pressures. Things like juggling intense academic demands, enduring gruelling playing seasons, coaches pushing for victory, dealing with injuries, having your identity tied to athletic performance, and even concerns about body weight. There is a lot to handle, and all of them can contribute to poor mental health in athletes.
The severity to which mental health issues impact an athlete’s performance varies depending on the individual and the specific nature of the mental health challenge. But one thing’s for sure—mental health struggles have a downright detrimental effect on sports performance. Or to put it another way, it’s a game changer, and not in a good way.
Other Factors that Could Affect Mental Health in Athletes
- General lifestyle challenges
- Sexuality and/or gender issues
- Sexual misconduct
- Transitioning from a sport
Understanding Performance Anxiety
Some athletes are clinically more inclined to experience sports anxiety than others. Surprisingly enough, despite the daily pressures they face, many professional athletes have their sports anxiety under control and are consistently performing at their best. Studies have found that confidence is a key trait among most pro athletes. The more self-confidence an athlete has, the more he or she can embrace adrenaline rushes and thrive in those nerve-wracking competition moments.
On the other hand, amateur athletes, in general, are not as accustomed to the intense pressures of the athletic world as the seasoned pros. They tend to suffer from more severe performance anxiety. In most cases, amateur players need more practice managing their pre-performance tension and nerves.
Along with amateurs, individual sports athletes are sometimes more prone to performance anxiety than those in team sports. It makes sense when you consider that the burden becomes a bit more bearable when one can share it with his/her teammates. Having said that, team sports are not completely immune to sports anxiety. It can still strike, especially when athletes are playing away from their home turf.
When it comes to managing sports anxiety, one straightforward approach is to ensure an ample amount of training. Because, as we’ve learned, anxiety often stems from a lack of confidence. Thus, to overcome anxiety, one must be certain they have put in sufficient training, so they can enter the competition with a positive outlook.
Another approach is to reach out for support. Working with a counsellor can help athletes break free from those negative thought patterns that feed their sports anxiety. They can use techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy to help athletes get their mind in the right place. Regular therapy sessions aimed at managing sports anxiety and other mental health aspects specific to sports can also be highly beneficial in this case. In addition, if friends or family members are available to offer support, inviting them to cheer for the athletes at an away venue is another way to get an extra boost of encouragement.
Other Common Mental Health Issues in Athletes
Sport anxiety is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing mental health in athletes. However, it is not the only mental illness players face, though it tends to be the most prevalent. There are also other challenges such as depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders, overtraining, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and burnout.
Based on a study conducted in 2019, approximately 21 percent of male student-athletes and nearly 29 percent of female student-athletes struggled with depression. But what’s even more alarming is that 12% of these college athletes surveyed admitted to having ‘seriously considered suicide’ within the past 12 months. And that’s about one out of ten people.
Depression is one of the top three mental health concerns for athletes, right up there with stress and anxiety. Researchers say that elite athletes are even more at risk of depression compared to those who aren’t as elite. When athletes are feeling depressed, it’s tough for them to do even the simplest things like getting out of bed or getting through daily tasks, let alone participate in sports activities.
Depression messes with athletes’ appetite and physique too. And it goes without saying that nutrition and weight are very important to athletes. When depression takes over, it can seriously affect a person’s ability to perform.
Another sign of depression is losing interest in things they used to enjoy, which is sport in our case. And you can imagine how that affects their game, because most of the time they’ll find it hard to stay engaged and motivated. If they’re not passionate about their sport, they will not be able to give it all in practice or competition.
Depression can also leave athletes feeling tired, drained of energy, as well as affecting their sleep patterns. Athletes need quality sleep to recover from intense training and to acquire new skills. As well, they require the energy and speed necessary for optimal performance.
Finally, depression, which is unknown to many, can also directly impact athletes physically. Athletes with depression often deal with physical pains, aches, and cramps that make it tough to train and compete at their peak. Now, you truly understand that the struggle is real, both mentally and physically.
Adam Rippon, a promising Olympian from the 2018 Winter Olympics, bravely shared his own experiences with disordered eating and body image. He hopes to break the stigma surrounding major mental illnesses and bring attention to the issue.
Athletes, in case you didn’t know, face greater risk of developing eating disorders compared to the general population. While sports are one of the fantastic ways to boost self-confidence and foster positive well-being, the pressure to compete and win can create an environment that easily leads to eating disorders. These disorders are serious mental illnesses that can cause other physical and mental health problems.
Eating disorders have a big impact on athletic performance. One obvious effect is malnutrition, which restricts athletes from performing at their best. They may feel tired, have trouble concentrating, and even experience heart issues.
Much like depression, eating disorders don’t just affect an athlete’s mental well-being, but also have serious physical consequences that hinder their performance. One consequence is a higher risk of injuries and stress fractures due to weakened bones and malnutrition. And in the most extreme cases, sport players with eating disorders could even lose their lives.
How People Around Athletes Can Help Improve Their Mental Health
Coaches, teammates, families, peers and others from sports organisations and schools can help in various ways. The problem is that some athletes might not openly admit to having problems with mental health issues. That’s why it’s crucial for the above-mentioned groups to find out early on if their athletes mental health has declined before things spiral out of control.
Now, how can you tell if an athlete is facing mental health struggles?
There are several indicators that point to mental illness among athletes. Look out for changes in their eating habits (they may eat more or less), differences in sleeping patterns (oversleeping or sleep deprived), shifts in their personal care routines, fluctuations in mood, withdrawal from social interactions, changes in their everyday functioning, difficulties with concentration, and any other peculiar behaviours.
If you spot any of these signs in an athlete, don’t hesitate to intervene. Whether you’re a coach, a parent, or a fellow athlete, extend your support by engaging in a heartfelt conversation. Simply being present and offering an empathetic ear can make a world of difference. Remember, sometimes all we need is someone willing to listen, free from judgement. Athletes, too, require such connections.
Athletes' Self-Care: A Guide to Mental Well-Being
Both elite and student athletes should keep in mind that while they strive for physical fitness in sports, they should also prioritise their mental preparedness. If you’re an athlete wanting to take care of your mental health, here are some steps you can take:
Talk to Someone
Ever notice how talking to a friend about your problems or challenges can make you feel better? Expressing your emotions and discussing what’s bothering you is a crucial part of mental health care. Find a sympathetic friend who listens without judgement. Talking to someone can also enhance your sense of belonging, boost self-confidence, and reduce anxiety.
Make Time for Yourself
If you’ve been caught up in training and games, and can’t even remember the last time you had a pamper day or took a break, it’s high time you treated yourself. Even Olympic athletes take occasional rest days between training, and you should too. Elite or student athletes need to allocate time for relaxation and doing things that make them happy outside of their sport. If going camping or gardening brings you joy, go for it.
And if you feel like taking things to the next level during this downtime, you might consider reading self-help books to learn how to view adrenaline (before or during competition) as a positive or acceptable force rather than a negative one.
..But Don't Forget to Socialize
Maintaining social relationships is vital for your mental health. Spending time with friends and family, fostering a sense of belonging, plays a significant role in your well-being. Going out for coffee dates or grabbing drinks is not just enjoyable, but also contributes to your mental well-being. It’s the perfect opportunity to catch up, laugh, and let loose. Remember, everyone needs socialisation for building healthy relationships, reducing stress, and avoiding conditions like depression or burnout.
Relax Your Body and Mind with a Few Simple, Amazing Techniques
Feeling stressed amidst training and athletic games, like you’re about to lose it? Give mindfulness meditation a try.Practicing mindfulness meditation, coupled with deep breathing exercises, can enhance your focus during games and promote better mental health.
Another neat technique we find helpful is visualising yourself succeeding in your sport or accomplishing a specific goal. Make it a regular part of your practice.
On the physical front, you can also practise progressive muscle relaxation techniques to calm your nerves whenever you start feeling overwhelmed by performance anxiety.
Mental health in athletes is critical not only to their success but also to their well-being. In this day and age, with the increasing awareness surrounding mental illness, it has become much easier for everyone, including sports players, to seek professional assistance. However, when an athlete is going through mental issues, the most important thing for them is to first understand that there’s no shame in being in such a situation, and they aren’t the one to blame. Athletes, regardless of their level, are encouraged to prioritize their mental health, and it’s equally important for those around them to provide emotional support in every way possible.