Is mental health important in sport? Our athletes represent the pinnacle of physical agility.
They represent our hopes and dreams of winning, but they also represent our mistakes and shortcomings. Research shows that around 35% of athletes are affected by mental illnesses in the form of stress, burnout, eating disorders, depression or anxiety.
Some risk factors that are elevated in this population are high exercise demands, pressure to perform, inadequate sleep from intense exercise, and stigma associated with mental illness in sport.
mental health in sport
Statistics show that female athletes in professional sports are more likely than men to be diagnosed with a mental health issue and appear to be more vulnerable to difficulties in their environment than their male counterparts.
Female athletes were also 56 percent more likely than male athletes to suffer from an anxiety disorder. The stigma associated with mental illness is prevalent in the sports world due to the emphasis on appearing physically and mentally fit and the belief that mental illness is a sign of weakness.
Athletes often neglect their mental health to keep their physical health and performance at peak levels. This makes them vulnerable to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Conversations on the playing field, in the locker room, and in the gym often focus on players and athletes being tough, tenacious, and hungry for victory. However, these motivational words can have a very different meaning for professional athletes.
Being tough often means showing no signs of weakness, refusing to acknowledge the difficulties of living in a hostile environment, and maintaining a semblance of composure at all times. When you add to the even more intense pressure to perform, the results could be disastrous.
The two identified conditions that uniquely affect athletes are performance anxiety and loss of identity. Performance anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders experienced by athletes.
A moderate level of anxiety can be beneficial and improve performance. However, high levels of anxiety can be harmful and lead to poor performance. Stage fright is an uncomfortable psychological condition in response to perceived stress related to performing a task under pressure.
Another unique aspect affecting athletes’ mental health is their susceptibility to identity loss or identity crises. A person can identify with multiple groups, such as students, friends, or family members. Each identity has its own set of rules and behaviors that are expected to be followed, which cements our association with that identity.
Athletes are particularly prone to one-dimensional identity, meaning they identify solely as athletes. This happens because of intense physical and mental demands and the need for athletes in professional sports to devote most of their time to their sport.
As such, athletes face a unique struggle to separate their perception of themselves as individuals, since their identity is so intertwined with that of their team.
How athletes can improve their mental health
While athletes are constantly reminded of their physical regime, they should also be encouraged to balance this with their mental health. Here are some ways athletes can support their mental health:
1) Reach out to a close friend to open up
Sometimes all you need is a trusted friend to talk to. Have you ever found that talking about a fight or problem with a friend makes you feel better?
Expressing your feelings and anything that upsets you is important to maintaining your sanity. Talk to a buddy who understands you and will listen to you without judgment. Talking to a friend can also make you feel more connected to the world, more confident, and less anxious
2) Self Care Time
It’s easy for us to schedule time for a walk or physical exercise, but it’s difficult to do the same for our mental health. When was the last time you took time for yourself? Did all the practice and games keep you on your toes? When was the last time you took a vacation or had a day to yourself?
Even Olympians, according to sports psychology, should occasionally take a day off from training, and you should do the same. Professional athletes and student athletes should set aside time for themselves to unwind and pursue their passions (other than training or sports).
Go camping if you find it useful, and if gardening brings you joy, do it.
3) Engage in mindfulness
Do you feel stressed between training and sports activities? Use meditation to find your way through practicing mindfulness. Combining deep breathing exercises with mindful meditation is an excellent workout to boost mental health and help you focus more on your athletic arena.
The first step to helping someone with a mental illness is to be there for them. Even listening without making judgments can be very useful. Support groups, counseling, therapy sessions, and medication if needed, can all improve mental health.
However, the most important steps to rehabilitation are to empower athletes to regulate their stress levels with basic yet effective stress management practices and to support them in developing healthy coping mechanisms. In the long run, making a consistent effort to put their mental health ahead of everything else can have the greatest impact on their well-being.
Janvi Kapur is a consultant with a master’s degree in applied psychology specializing in clinical psychology.
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