Many people are aware of mental health and its importance; however, up until recently, there have not been many discussions about mental health in sports- especially at the Olympic and professional level.
Some people may view mental health and sports as separate from one another; in actuality, however, mental health and sports are very much linked. Furthermore, the mental health of athletes plays a significant role in their performance and ongoing longevity in the profession.
At the end of the day, without mental health, sports would be a non-factor. In order for people to be able to enjoy sports—both watching and playing—the mental health of players is of significant importance.
Despite the importance of mental health, there still remains an unfortunate stigma associated with mental health in sports. There is a perceived “vulnerability” in discussing mental health, contrasting with the outlook of “toughness” that is typically associated with sports.
In many cases, sports players are told to press past things and forget difficult memories and experiences. Once sports players get to a certain level in the occupation, there’s often an expectation for them to project “strength” and focus on team leadership. Sports culture largely views this as the pinnacle of productivity; however, this can actually be detrimental to sports players in the short term and long term.
Despite the existing mental health stigma in sports, there is always room for change and progress. That first begins with communicating to sports players that mental health challenges do not make them weak or less deserving to be an athlete. It’s also important for sports culture not to sweep mental health under the rug in general or adhere too closely to the “get over it and toughen up” approach.
There is no denying that rising above certain challenges is necessary for sports and other areas of life; however, mental health and mental health challenges are not things that can simply be “gotten over.” Mental health struggles must be taken as seriously in the sports community as physical injuries; despite the stigma, mental health can have just as much impact on an athlete’s ability to play sports as tangible injuries to the physical body.
Understanding this is the very first step to chipping away at the unfortunate stigma of mental health in sports.
Understanding the importance of mental health in sports, along with the subsequent stigma, matters; however, it’s also equally as relevant to understand how mental health can be of value and provide a solution to this particular issue.
The reality is that therapy and mental health go hand in hand, even when it comes to sports. Like anyone else, sports players should have access to therapy, just as they have access to doctors who are qualified to treat and diagnose physical ailments. Mental health ailments should be treated with as much care and urgency, hence the need for therapy in mental health.
There are a series of ways that therapy can help mental health in sports. However, the ability for sports players to have a helpful and qualified shoulder to lean on certainly makes the top of the list.
Speaking with therapists can help sports players know they are not alone and have someone to confide in. Sports players who talk with therapists can also have a safe space to hash out their feelings and thoughts; this also comes with the added benefits of getting personalized feedback that is unique to their situation and no one else’s. Mental health care matters, and despite the stigma, the need for access to mental health care does not equate to the weakness of personal shortcomings.
Across all occupations, there are so many people who deal with stress and pressure; however, for athletes, stress and pressure can reach heightened levels.
As previously noted, many sports players are facing expectations to perform at a certain level and meet certain quotas. In many cases, these expectations increase as sports players move through the ranks and rise in their field. Despite certain benefits linked to this progression, consistent expectations can engender stress; the risk of stress especially goes up when sports players are dealing with other challenges outside of their profession.
This is yet another reason why therapy can help with mental health in sports. One of the greatest benefits of speaking with a therapist is having access to healthy coping mechanisms. Moreover, a therapist can help each sports player develop the coping mechanisms that are best conducive to them as individuals. No two sports players are exactly the same. Therefore, what works for one athlete may turn out to be less helpful for the next.
The importance of mental health in sports cannot be overestimated. As such, BetterHelp remains deeply committed to the mental health of athletes and other sports players.
In keeping with this sentiment, BetterHelp will be working with the OUT Foundation’s OUT Athlete program by donating three months of free therapy to athletes. Furthermore, BetterHelp stands with The OUT Foundation and OUT Athlete Program by supporting queer and non-queer athletes both now and in the future.
Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists, from athletes facing different challenges.
“Wendy is great. I'm unique and not everything in my life is cut and dry or 'normal' but she has taken the time to understand my crazy workloads and athletic pursuits and has worked a therapeutic plan around things most people would have trouble grasping. She really is great and I highly recommend her services!”
There is no denying that therapy can be a great solution for athletes and others who are struggling with mental health issues; with that being said, therapy is not something that everyone feels ready for or has access to.
In cases such as these, the following mental health solutions can be quite conducive to athletes and other people in need of mental health support.
Keep A Journal
Keeping a journal is one excellent mental health solution that does not involve therapy. By writing in a journal, athletes and others have a constructive and positive means of letting out their emotions. Journaling is a great release and also allows for personal reflection.
Many people use journals to release their thoughts, feelings, and struggles; other people use journals to write letters to individuals who will never receive them. This, too, can be incredibly beneficial and conducive to people in need of mental health support. Journals are also easy to travel with and take to different places, a benefit that can especially be of value to athletes.
Spend Time With Loved Ones
As human beings, we are innately wired to be sociable and seek personal connections with other people. It’s been proven time and time again that having a support system and loved ones to confide in makes all the difference in the world.
Isolation and loneliness are some of the worst things for any individual to struggle with; this is especially true when mental health issues are present. For this reason, spending time with loved ones is a great mental health solution that does not involve therapy.
Now, more than ever, it is time to be mindful of the importance of mental health in sports. The stigma must be erased so that each and every athlete feels comfortable with getting any mental health care they may need.
Athletes and anyone else in need of mental health support, services, or feedback can reach out to BetterHelp here.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is mental health important in sports?
Simply put, if you’re not feeling your best, you can’t play your best. Athletes struggling with their mental health, be it an occasional off day brought on by stress or a more consistent issue like depression or low self-esteem, are significantly more likely to experience physical injury. When mental health is poor, athletes may engage in negative self-talk, self-doubt, experience an inability to concentrate, and on a more severe scale may experience resulting physical ailments like headaches, insomnia, fatigue, or stomach pains. All of these factor into performance and can increase the risk of injury, which can in turn result in a cycle that worsens mental health.
Additionally, athletes are often in the spotlight to some degree or another, increasing the risk of developing physically and mentally harmful issues like body dysmorphia, burnout due to pushing oneself too hard for too long, anxiety disorders and depression due to pressures to perform, and potentially substance use disorder. A perceived loss or below-average performance may trigger feelings of inadequacy or disappointment in athletes, and if not mitigated with techniques like positive self-talk or mindfulness techniques could lead to mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, or substance use to cope and potentially increase performance.
How many college athletes struggle with mental health?
According to Athletes for Hope, approximately 33% of college students experience considerable depression and anxiety, with only 30% of them seeking help or treatment. Among college athletes, a mere 10% of them seek help or treatment. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a survey conducted by the NCAA on 37,000 student athletes found that mental health concerns and conditions are 150 to 250% higher than ever before reported by NCAA college athletes. One in ten of those surveyed stated that depression made it difficult for them to function on a daily or nearly daily basis, while over a third reported issues with sleeping like insomnia, interrupted sleep, or sleeping at odd times. College seniors are reportedly more at-risk than college freshman, possibly due to factors like greater workloads, higher expectations from coaches and professors alike, and the unknowns of life post-graduation.