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The Powerful Connection Between Sports and Mental Health

Written byDesiree Smith

A 2022 NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study found that the number of student-athletes with mental health concerns is 1.5 to 2 times higher than before the pandemic, with many of them reporting elevated rates of mental exhaustion and anxiety. Rigorous daily routines, intense pressure to perform, and a general lack of support can all cause an athlete’s mental health to deteriorate — even if their athletic confidence stays high.

In 2021, Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team finals at the Tokyo Olympics due to her struggles with mental health. That same year, tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced she would not be doing post-match press after the French Open in order to preserve her mental health. Recently, legendary swimmer Michael Phelps shared that he’s struggled with anxiety and depression after competing in the Olympics. Due to his experiences, Phelps encourages other athletes who are struggling with their mental health to seek help from a professional.

These athletes all compete at the professional level — something many athletes spend their entire lives trying to attain. While they’ve reached what many would consider the epitome of success, they still found themselves struggling. 

Breaking the Stigma Behind Athletes’ Mental Health

Seeking mental health care is often stigmatized in athletics as a sign of weakness. Athletic culture promotes pain as a rite of passage and something to be embraced, but that shouldn’t be the case. Physical strength doesn’t necessarily correlate with mental strength. Exercise certainly has positive impacts on mental health, but that doesn’t make athletes immune to mental health challenges. In fact, the pressure and expectations on athletes on all levels put them at risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and more.

Many athletes struggling with their mental health report having performance anxiety, especially before major competitions. This anxiety is often intensified for athletes returning from an injury. Panic attacks are one of the most common symptoms of performance anxiety, which can be especially alarming for athletes who don’t realize they are struggling with their mental health in the first place.

While anxiety is common among athletes, many are also susceptible to depression. Injured athletes, in particular, may develop post-traumatic stress disorder or substance use problems during and after recovery. The desire and pressure to recover as fast as possible may lead them to push through the pain. If athletes don’t give themselves the time to heal properly, they could develop chronic pain, which only worsens any symptoms of depression.

The problem is that many athletes lack the support they need to properly care for their mental and physical health. College athletes may fear losing scholarships, playing time, or even their chance at earning a degree if they take time away for injuries or mental health reasons. Professional athletes may be afraid of losing their livelihood or the passion that’s driven them since childhood. 

Athletes are extremely physically resilient, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to the same mental health resources as everyone else. Many athletes find their identity in their athletic community. What if that community included athletes who are outspoken advocates for better mental health?

The Mental Health of Retired Athletes

All athletic careers eventually come to an end, whether it be because of age, an injury, or exhaustion. In the wake of their athletic careers, many athletes struggle to adapt to a regular life. For college and professional athletes especially, many hours and sacrifices go into building a successful career. When one of the core pillars of their identity is stripped away, they start to wonder where their time and energy should go.

For many athletes, their sport is their dominant identity. While some athletes feel a sense of relief after retiring, others feel intense loss after putting their competing days behind them. So, it only makes sense that individuals with a high athletic identity at the time of their retirement are more likely to struggle to adjust emotionally.

Athletes may fall victim to tunnel vision during their careers, meaning they only think of training, competitions, and results. This laser focus can be beneficial on the playing field, but it can leave athletes without the balanced perspective required in other careers and unsure of where to direct their effort and energy.

The rise in mental health awareness in athletes came shortly after the pandemic, as high school, college, and professional athletes all found their seasons and playing careers cut short. Many were left to grapple with premature retirement and where to go from there.

Regardless of how, when, or why, leaving athletic competition behind can be difficult, but it’s not something athletes have to go through alone. With a strong support system in place, they can successfully transition into a new pace of life.

Mental Health Care Tips for Athletes

If you’re an athlete facing mental health challenges or you’ve noticed that one of your teammates is struggling, rest assured that there are tools and resources available to help. Here are a few ways you can improve and maintain your mental well-being:

1). Develop a support system.

Surround yourself with athletes, coaches, friends, family, and mental health professionals who understand what you’re going through and will be there to support you. Having people you trust to have your best interests at heart will make it easier to ask for help. Athletic pressure can be isolating, so have open conversations about the pressures and challenges you experience as an athlete.

2). Find coping strategies.

Mental health looks different for everyone. So do coping mechanisms. Find the best strategies for you, such as mindfulness, journaling, and engaging in hobbies outside of sports. Stress management techniques can help you deal with the pressures of competition and performance anxiety.

3). Speak up when you need help.

Athlete or not, asking for help can be scary. The first step is acknowledging your mental health needs and overcoming the stigma. Next, seek professional help from a mental health expert who can help you reframe your thinking and find coping strategies that work for you. If your athletic organization offers mental health resources, take advantage of them. They are there for a purpose, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed about getting the help you need.

No matter what level you compete at, remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. At iTrust Wellness, we’ve seen countless lives improved because people advocated for their needs and reached out for help. Getting help isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it. No matter where you are in your athletic career, you deserve to be healthy and happy.

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