Sportspersons are Human too - Mental Health in the world of Elite Sport

We don’t question an athlete or professional sportsperson taking time when they need to recovery from a broken wrist or a pulled hamstring, because those injuries are easy to spot, and they come with this understanding that they need immediate attention and cannot be overlooked. But what happens when a sportsperson shares their struggles with their Mental Health and needs to step away for that? The biggest challenge that comes up unfortunately is that just because Mental Health conditions like anxiety or depression cannot be diagnosed with an X-ray, we tend to forget that they can be just as harrowing and debilitating as a physical injury but sadly these are more often than not ignored, overlooked, dismissed or discounted.



Athletes and professional sportspersons tend to carry this larger-than-life persona which makes them regarded as modern-day superheroes, warriors and the epitome of grit and resilience. This perception of their invincibility often makes us forget that they are also human, and just like everyone else they too battle the pressures of life and are not immune to having a hard time with their Mental Health. This view which society carries, that these athletes are almost ‘superhumans’ is not new - even the term ‘Olympians’ itself has its roots in Greek mythology which implies that sportspersons are superhumans who have in them an unshakeable willpower, strength, grit and resilience which places them above the rest of the mortals. In all this we forget how issues like the impact of injury, overtraining, social media scrutiny and ongoing competitive pressure to perform can affect sportspersons and their Mental Health. In this piece we will examine what the implications of these perceptions are on elite sportspersons especially when it comes to them opening up about their Mental Health, some of the reasons they hold back and how we can make these conversations around athlete Mental Health more mainstream.


In this bid to live up to the expectations and perceptions that people have around them, athletes often feel that they cannot show any sign of weakness and thus they hardly ever admit to their behind-the-scenes struggles with their Mental Health. Furthermore, in this competitive bid to be selected and not be written off, they often end up overlooking their Mental Health and emotional wellbeing which in turn makes them even more vulnerable to developing mental illnesses. Whether its conversations in locker rooms, on the field or in the media, these usually focus on athletes being tough, gritty, strong, resilient and determined to win at any cost. And often, this is sadly even at the cost of their own Mental Health. These elite athletes are often high functioning individuals and this falls in line with prevailing assumptions that only the mentally and emotionally strong athletes will succeed and be able to compete at the highest level. Owing to this, there is a limited attention given to Mental Health in the world of Elite Sport & it is about time this changes.


Sportspersons in addition to facing the daily stressors like the rest of us also face unique stressors related to their sporting careers and any of these elements can lead to Mental ill-health and take a toll on them. When it comes to sport specific stressors, we cannot overlook challenges associated with overtraining, facing performance failure, not being selected on a team, being in the retirement phase of their careers, injuries, performance expectations, the requirements of having a certain body type and shape, the low social support, spending long periods of time away from home (especially with the bio bubbles arising from Covid-19), and of course, the media and social media scrutiny which comes with being public figures.


When it comes to opening up about their Mental Health, there might be a range of factors which hold athletes back from seeking help and sharing their distress. This includes the stigma which sadly still prevails around Mental Health including the perception of help-seeking being seen as a sign of weakness or personal failure, a lack of understanding around Mental Health and the impact it can have on performance, the sporting culture (especially in men’s sport) which idealises values like strength, resilience and mental toughness along with fears around being excluded from the team/ elite tournaments. While sporting bodies around the world are looking to encourage these conversations and build in structures for early identification and intervention to support athletes, there is still a long way to go when it comes to implementing support structures for sportspersons. Another big challenge from the perspective of the sporting unit lies in recognising that a player might be dealing with Mental Health issues as sportspersons are often donning the hat of being a role model and thus tend to hide any signs of what might make them appear to be ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’. Owing to this, there is often a reluctance to open up about issues which might plague them and seek help. The other challenge with regards to recognising the early signs of poor Mental Health is that very often those around the individual be it their teammates, coaches, friends or family may not even know the signs to look out for and these issues don’t have physical health implications in the early stages either.


When we look at Mental Health of athletes, we need to have these conversations and ensure that individuals can get the appropriate support that they need as having a struggle with their Mental Health or a Mental illness can affect them adversely. At a very basic level, we need to understand that it becomes a distraction which will come in the way of their performance as their mind is preoccupied with other things. These can further build up as the competition builds and it can increase the pressure to perform and the performance anxiety the athlete might feel. This can not only affect their scores and performances, but in some sport like gymnastics or skiing, it can also be disastrous and dangerous. It can also take a toll on their self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-confidence as well, particularly as their performance begins to get hampered.


In recent times, we have seen several elite sportspersons across sport speak up about their Mental Health - be it Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes, Hannah Darlington, Glenn Maxwell or Michael Phelps to name a few. But seeing the negative comments on social media around their speaking out shows that there is still a long way to go when it comes to increasing public acceptance and raising awareness so that individuals can participate in this discourse without fearing this backlash. That being said, there have also been several comments which have defended these individuals for their decision and have cheered them on for their recovery. We know the influence that elite sportspersons have and perhaps the more they open up, the better it will be for the entire discourse on a wider, community level. There might be backlash, but this may also inspire a lot of others to seek help because they have seen their role models speak up. But before we get there, we need to create those environments within the sporting community and sport bodies itself so that athletes feel supported to open up about their own Mental Health needs.


There are a few strategies which can be adopted when it comes to encouraging conversations, recognising the signs, and providing support to any sportsperson who might need it. Some of these include:

  • Ensure that the sporting organisation has a comprehensive Mental Health policy in place and that this is understood by all stakeholders so they are aware of the support available

  • Providing training and psychoeducation to athletes, coaches, support staff and friends and families about symptoms of different mental health conditions and how to help

  • Holding seminars for medical professionals and sport psychology professionals to learn from each other and collaborate in relation to high performance sport environments

  • Normalise conversations and validate the experiences of athletes in elite sport so as to destigmatise this topic

  • Look at supporting, encouraging and reinforcing behaviours that will facilitate opening up about Mental Health and encourage help-seeking

  • Ensure that all stakeholders involved in the referral network are aware of the nature of high-performance sport and understand the issues related to performance which athletes might face with their on-field roles

  • Look at the development and furthering of research when it comes to sport-specific screening tools for Mental Health in elite sporting environments

  • Increase focus on sport-specific situations athletes may find themselves in such as such as overtraining, psychological reactions to injuries, and retirement which may increase their likelihood of suffering from poor Mental Health


We need to remember that Elite athletes just like any of us are equally prone to developing Mental Health disorders or have a hard time with their Mental Health, and this doesn’t make them any less of a ‘success’, it only makes them human. We know that there are also additional sport specific challenges that they face and as a result we need to provide opportunities of better understand Mental Health, encourage conversations and build environments around athletes which are conducive for them to feel safe to seek help for their Mental Health without fear of the consequences.

 

Written by: Vedica Podar


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February, 2022