Competing at the highest level of sport is every athletes’ dream. They train their entire lives to live up to not only their own standards but those of fans, coaches, teammates, and more. Game time has its obvious pressures, but many viewers often forget the struggles athletes endure on the journey to get there. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Kevin Love, Michael Phelps, and so many other top athletes have spoken out about mental health throughout the years. After millions supported the physical and mental wellbeing of Biles in Tokyo, athlete mental health has never been a more frequent topic of conversation.
Many athletes succumb to outside pressures allowing themselves to believe stereotypical ideals of what it takes to succeed. One of the most celebrated athletes, Muhammad Ali, once said: “Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”. This narrative of sacrificing the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of athletes has now shifted as more athletes continue to speak out. Icons like Biles and Phelps have proven that athletic excellence is more than the sport and that it should not come at the expense of one’s wellbeing. Medals, rings, and trophies are not sustainable, and finding a balance is key to protecting athletes mental health.
So, what mental health risks are athletes prone to, what are the signs, and how can they seek treatment?
The pressures of competing and training cause athletes to endure high levels of stress which are attributed to large changes in self-esteem and sensation-seeking measures. Athletes who compete at high degrees of competition tend to have greater self-esteem and sensation-seeking levels, but these levels are fragile due to the ever-changing environment of sports. Stress and anxiety are thought to be normative in the competition, therefore, causing mental health disorders to often go undiagnosed and untreated.
Unique studies have been conducted to help differentiate mental health disorders from simple competitive nature. Athletes have historically been prone to mental health disorders including eating disorders (ED), depression, and anxiety.
Depression and anxiety in athletes are understudied fields. Injury, external and internal performance expectations, extreme time demand, and identity linkage to athletics are all risk factors specifically for depression in athletes. Lack of focus, commonly mistaken for lack of interest, anger, insomnia, and fatigue are all signs of depression in athletes. Fear of failure and social judgment are the most common athlete-specific causes of anxiety. Aside from cognitive behavioral therapy, there are specific pharmaceutical treatments for both anxiety and depression that won’t affect performance.
Along with normal causes, performance measures, weigh-ins, and injuries have all been triggers for eating disorders in athletes. Perfectionism is also a common characteristic in those with ED which can be problematic as this trait is usually praised in athletics. ED screening metrics and tools have been created specifically for athletes and can be used to help diagnose athletes. While working to maintain a healthy weight, athletes can work with physicians, nutritionists, and mental health professionals to continue their sport as they are treated.
There is a stigma about mental health in athletics and as more athletes speak out about their experience with mental health issues, more information, studies, and treatments will arise specifically related to athletics. Over a quarter of professional athletes have been reported to suffer a mental health crisis and coaches, fans, and sports organizations are starting to take the initiative the help. The psychological aspect of training elite athletes is beginning to shift from ‘mental toughness’ to how ‘mental health’ can improve overall performance. Some may say this change is showing weakness, but the truth is that mental health is another tool in achieving and sustaining athletic excellence.