Mental Health
and Sports

It’s no surprise that mental health has been a hot topic during this year’s Olympics.  More and more athletes are taking mental health seriously across all sports and it’s become a key component in their game and health.  

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If we have learned anything this year, it’s that mental health issues do not discriminate. They can affect those from all walks of life – even those we consider invincible.

We generally think about sports and physical activity as having a positive effect on our mental health. However, they can also be detrimental its certain situations.

Current mental health issues among elite athletes are making headlines around the world.

From professional gymnast Simone Biles to tennis prodigy Naomi Osaka, many athletes competing in the 2020 Olympic Summer Games (hosted in 2021), are opting out of the competition to focus on their mental health. Choosing to put their mental health first, many athletes are following suit, and rightfully so.

Keep reading to find out more about current mental health issues in the world of professional sports.

What Are Mental Health Issues?

Mental health disorders consist of conditions that affect mood, cognition, and behavior.

While there is a long mental health issues list, common mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, bipolar affective disorder, and schizophrenia.

It is common to experience difficulties with mental health. However, it becomes problematic when these issues impact your daily functioning. In severe cases, people are unable to maintain stable relationships and sustain employment.

You can experience symptoms of mental health that range from mild to severe. The severity of the illness depends on environmental, social, and genetic factors.

Here are some common signs of mental health issues: 

Mental health issues can also have an effect on your physical health. Many people experience aches and pains throughout their bodies while suffering mentally.

Stressors That Affect Athlete Mental Health

As mentioned, performing as a professional athlete can present a variety of particular stressors. The high pressure of performance from coaches and peers can be a heavy burden for elite athletes.

These are some of the stressors that have an impact on the mental health of elite athletes:

These are only a few examples of the types of issues that athletes experience that can lead to mental health deterioration. Left unaddressed, these issues affect the athlete’s performance and overall quality of life.

Mental health deterioration has to start somewhere. It begins with athlete culture across organizations, coaches, and teammates.

Athelte Culture: Performance and Coaching

Athlete personality characteristics can positively or negatively interact with the athletic culture that can have implications for the athlete, team, and environment.

As a result of this relationship, external and internal variables often fluctuate and may mirror changes in culture and individual development patterns during athletic engagement.

A coach’s culture, the team’s performance, and socioeconomic status may be external variables, while internal factors include traits such as perfectionism, pessimism, and introversion.

For example, perfectionism contributes to a lot of mental health issues. Whether it’s individual sport performance or physical appearance, athletes tend to go the extra mile to achieve certain milestones without considering how it will affect their mental health.

Coaching culture can also lead to mental health issues within the athletes. Coaches constantly like to push their athletes to the limits in workouts, grades, and general student-athlete life.

Because of coaches’ anxious, aggressive behavior, and excessive constructive criticism, athletes can suffer from mental issues or experience difficulty focusing, resulting in poor performance.

Additionally, performance scores and anxiety levels were found to be inversely related.

Video: 'Its OK to not be OK'

Hear from what some of the worlds top athletes have to say about mental health.

Hazing and Bullying in College Sports

Hazing and bullying are often used interchangeably. While they are two different actions both have similar effects on an athlete’s mental health.

Throughout both behaviors, the perpetrator has considerable control and power over the individual or the athlete. Despite this, hazing and bullying have some subtle differences.

Hazing

A hazing activity is any anonymous, humiliating, or dangerous activity required of a student to become a member of the group (despite their desire to participate).

Despite extreme hazing cases result in morbidity and mortality receive considerable media attention, it is not well known how common hazing is in sports.

Those who compete at a higher level, play team sports, and participate in contact sports have shown the greatest reporting rate. Males and females seem to suffer the same rate of hazing; however, boys are more likely to endure physical forms.

In the NCAA, 80% of athletes experience hazing during their college careers. The same athletes that reported hazing in college also reported a history of hazing in high school, a total of 42%.

A similar study almost a decade later revealed that 74% of student-athletes experienced at least one form of hazing while in college. Given that over 380 000 student-athletes are participating in NCAA sports, it is likely that 28,0000 were potential victims of hazing in college athletics alone.

While most college athletes condone the behavior of hazing, a large majority of it goes unreported.

The majority of college athletes who experienced hazing did not report the incident. They claimed that 60% to 95% of the time.

Bullying

Bullying in athletics is another common but under-reported topic in sports.

Bullying can be different for every athlete, so it can be challenging to define the term. What’s bullying to one athlete can be perceived differently by another.

Bullying is defined as “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful.”

Players or coaches may exhibit this type of behavior, including yelling, physically and verbally overpowering people, or using body language as an intimidation tool.

An athlete can also experience this from their coach if they feel unworthy, despised, insufficient, or their performance will determine their value.

According to one study, about 38% of students knew someone who was cyberbullied, and almost 9% reported cyberbullying others.

Similarly, 12% of male and 4% of female student-athletes said they received harmful communications from other fans through social media sources in 2015 via the NCAA Study of Student-Athlete Social Environments report.

The rate of black students receiving negative and threatening messages is also twice that of white students.

Types of Mental Health Issues in Athletes

Mental health issues are more prevalent among younger athletes. During peak performance age, mental health issues are much more likely. This is due to the intensity and physical demands of the competitive years.

It is estimated that 35% of athletes experience mental health crises throughout their careers. It can include symptoms like stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

Here are some of the most common mental health issues experienced by athletes:

Stress

Stress is caused by many factors if you are an athlete.
As an athlete, a sports injury can be cause major psychological distress. One of the most common mental health disorders in athletes is depression, especially among those who have sustained an injury.

Former athletes who suffered from injuries were up to seven times more likely to experiences mental health disorders than those who had not experienced injury or surgery.

While seeking treatment for injuries, many athletes also discuss how they are affected psychologically by their injury. They note negative feelings associated with depression, anger, and sadness.

Lack of social support can also cause stress. An athlete can feel as though they are only valuable for their sports abilities. If they cannot achieve this, they feel as though they have nothing to offer.

Depression

Athletes are more susceptible to depression relative to the rest of the population. This is because of their physical and psychological challenges.

Media exposure creates a profound amount of pressure on an athlete’s career. Their performances are scrutinized and judged by the public. The need to excel and keep the public’s acceptance can be overwhelming.

Performance pressure, injury, and termination are some of the most common factors that can lead to depression.

Many athletes move away from home to train and are away from their families for extended periods of time. They are also isolated while they are training. This can lead to feelings of depression and emotional stress, which can ultimately negatively affect their performance.

Retirement or termination can also be a source of depression for some athletes. many identify with their sport and feel depressed and displaced once they are no longer at the peak of their career.

Some find it difficult to transition out of athletics into another profession.

Anxiety

Anxiety is common in the athletic world because of the nature of the industry. Competition is anxiety-provoking by nature and thus there may not be enough attention around feelings of anxiety.
However, it can cause impaired performance and lack of confidence. Additionally, an athlete can become accustomed to competition anxiety.

However, anxiety levels can fluctuate closer to the performance date, and the extremes of emotional state can cause debilitative performance.

Experiencing extreme highs and lows – winning and losing in the sport – can cause anxiousness and social phobia. Athletes may experience a lot of positive reinforcement from coaches, family, and fans when they perform well. However, they feel anxious when they have underperformed.

Eating Disorders

Disordered eating is also one of the most common mental health disorders among athletes.

Many are striving for perfection and within their elite community. There is considered an “ideal” body type for any given sport. This adds a tremendous amount of pressure to maintain a certain weight.

The pressure can also lead to abnormal eating and clinical eating disorders.

Athletes have been known to deny hunger, obsess over food, and be consumed over their weight. All of these are mentally exhausting and emotionally stressful.

Athletes engaging in certain sports are at a greater risk for eating disorders. This is particularly the case in sports where body weight is divided into categories for competition. Wrestling, row, and boxing are among the sport with increased risk of eating disorders.

These instances are also often underreported. There is a stigma around eating disorders for males, so they are less likely to discuss their eating issues.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is another concerning issue surrounding mental health in the sports environment.

Not only have athletes been known to take performance-enhancing substances for their sport, but they have also been known to take substances to manage their stress.

Associating stress relief with substance abuse can lead to psychological and physical drug dependency. Over time, athletes associate a decrease in negative emotion with drug use. Additionally, they become more tolerant to the drug, requiring a higher dosage for the same effect.

Athletes have a higher rate of binge drinking, high-risk behaviors, and substance abuse compared to the general population.

Marijuana use has also become prevalent among the athletic community. Second, only to alcohol, cannabis is one of the most commonly used drugs among males competing in organized sports. Many use it to deal with their anxiety, weight loss, and insomnia.

Gambling and other behavioral addictions have also affected the sport’s elite. Professional footballers may be prone to a greater likelihood of gambling addiction and other high-risk behaviors.

Treatment for Mental Health Issues

There are many treatment modalities to help support athletes overcome mental health disorders. It is also important to think about preventative measures and aim to address the problems before they escalate.

Early Intervention

One of the ways to take precautionary and preventative measures for mental health is early intervention.

If an athlete is unable to cope with the demands and pressures of their performance, there must be an intervention. Sports and clinical psychologists can provide care within the sports community. This preserves the privacy of the athlete.

Mental health professionals who have training assisting elite athletes are most helpful for early intervention. Ideally, there should be a team of physicians that are dedicated to the world of elite athleticism. Doctors with a specialty for working with these patients are likely to understand athlete mental illness.

Athletes in the early stages of stress can be assessed by a mental health professional. They can then work with this practitioner on an ongoing basis to restore their mental health.

Interpersonal Therapy

This is a form of psychotherapy that centers around interactions with one’s friends and family. This can apply to athlete mental health treatment. It focuses on the relationship they have to the sport and the pressure they experience from family and coaches.

Interpersonal therapy generally lasts 3-4 months and aims to improve communication and self-esteem. It also helps with depression and anxiety caused by social isolation, significant life events, and relationship complications.

With an athlete’s lifestyle, they are prone to experiencing the causes that can lead to their own depression and anxiety. Life as an athlete can be socially isolating. As such, it may be difficult to maintain a healthy relationship while preoccupied with a sport.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Known as CBT, cognitive-behavioral therapy helps identify and reframe patterns of irrational thoughts and behaviors. With CBT patients can correct perceptions about themselves and improve methods of black and white thinking.

This can be particularly helpful for athletes who identify solely with their sport and have lost touch with their identity.

Some of the goals of CBT include : 

  • Understanding distorted thought and behavior patterns 
  • Reframing thoughts 
  • Creating functional behaviors 
  • Identifying problematic thinking 
  • Reevaluating current relationships 
  • Creating satisfying life objectives 
  • Creating coping strategies to deal with stress 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is helpful for anyone suffering from moderate to severe depression. It is also helpful for those who struggle with mental health disorders and do not want to take medication.

For athletes avoiding medication, this is a great form of therapy. It does not interfere with physical performance as some medications like antidepressants.

Depression Treatment Centers

Some athletes suffer from severe forms of mental health issues, like major depression. In these instances, they made need to check in to a depression treatment center.

The right treatment center will include the family (and in this case coaches). This is to ensure that the needs of the athlete are identified. They are set up in a group environment, engaging with others that can relate to their experience with depression.

Southern California Sunrise Mental Health center offers private and dignified residential treatment. They personalize treatment plans for each patient. They also integrate different forms of therapy suited to each patient’s needs.

The Long and the Short on Current Mental Health Issues in Sports

We tend to think that elite athletes are invincible. We used to see them on the cover of cereal boxes and we used to emulate their signature moves. They were our real-life superheroes growing up, going above and beyond the limits of human performance.

With all of the current mental health issues experienced by our favorite athletes, it’s time to humanize our athletes. We must recognize the tremendous amount of pressure that they experience.

Additionally, we must understand that they need support and healing from public scrutiny.

If you or someone you know needs support for mental health disorders as an athlete, head to our website and contact us today for help.

References

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