04. Wellness

Why Athletes Aren’t Super Human When it Comes to Mental Health

June 2, 2021

Inspired by the glorious successes of world-beating athletes, most of us can relive memories of spectacular sporting moments as part of our own lives. And through the media we see all the celebrations, the beaming smiles, cries of joy, and the trophy lifting. What we don’t see are the plethora of challenges faced behind the scenes. These are the grueling demands of extreme training in today’s ultra-competitive sports, the pressures being a global celebrity in the digital age, the extreme highs and lows of competing, and the ever-present fear of injury. Here we’ll see why when it comes mental health, athletes aren’t super humans - they’re simply humans like the rest of us.

It’s Tough at the Top

In recent news Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka took a personal stand that raised attention over the mental health of professional athletes. Having struggled with depression and anxiety over public speaking, she refused to conduct interviews with the media after her matches at the French Open. This was based on concerns over her own mental well-being.

By Peter Menzel - Naomi Osaka, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74087470

In response the tennis authorities fined her and threatened further action, and in return she pulled out of one of the biggest tournaments of the year. On one side, today’s omnipresent media culture expects high-paid athletes to stick to whatever their contract demands. But on the flipside, many fans and athletes sided with Naomi as being 'courageous', perhaps from their own understanding through facing the many challenges of COVID-19.

Steph Curry was one of a number of sports stars who openly supported Naomi in her struggles, tweeting, ‘‘You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this - but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own.’’

Another was Seattle Seahawks star receiver Tyler Lockett, who has spoken about his own struggles with mental health, ‘‘As human beings we have to do better at supporting each other. Mental health is real.’’

A Growing Level of Awareness

In the years prior to COVID-19 there was already a growing movement of athletes from different sports raising awareness that being a professional athlete is not always the dream job people imagine. Here are 4 challenges of sports careers that are starting to change the way we view athletes.

1. Concussions

The most prominent public awareness of concern for athletes came out the long-term health risks of sports concussions. Traditionally a 'ding' to the head was just something most athletes, coaches and fans thought you simply recovered from after a short rest. However, research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) showed that repeated head injuries can have severe and life-long repercussions, with a number of sports celebrities committing suicide as a direct cause of the delayed effects of mTBIs.

A leading voice in the athletics world is two-time NHL Stanley Cup winner Daniel Carcillo, who talks candidly about the cost of the sport in his own life.

Hockey is a great game, but it’s also a tough game. What I wasn’t ready for was the factors that led me to prolonged depression and even suicidal ideologies, due to the mental health complications derived from my 7 documented concussions. Sleeping until 3pm, experiencing light sensitivity, slurred speech, insomnia, anxiety and depression, are all things I’ve had to face which culminated in life-threatening situations.

2. Pain Management

Outside of concussions, there was also widespread adoption of cannabis medication in the NFL. It use by players is a means to help psychologically and physically manage the pain during recovery from the severe physical punishment the game typically inflicts. Rather than NFL players being treated as pariahs of the sport, medical evidence has recently led the NFL to officially support the use of cannabis, with 11 NFL stars currently operating their own cannabis businesses.

3. The Psychological Impact of Defeat

Regarded as one of the greatest British fighters, former world boxing champion Ricky Hatton had a dramatic rise in success on the world stage, followed by two devastating defeats to American Floyd Mayweather, and Filipino Manny Pacquiao. Hatten later spoke candidly about the mental problems that followed, including alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide attempts. Believing mental health issues are prevalent in the sport today, he is now a dedicated advocate for raising mental health awareness.

If a boxer can come out and say they're struggling and crying every day, it's going to make a huge difference. Having gone through it, I now see it as my job to help those suffering with mental health.

In a recent Netflix documentary legendary tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou took an in-depth look at the bizarre phenomena of world-class tennis players throwing matches, known as 'tanking'. They do so by purposely missing or making bad shots, game after game. He concluded that the fear of being seen and trying, but losing, threatens their self-belief in their own talent and potential. So much so, that they risk their careers and reputations that they have dedicated their lives to. Both coping with failure, and fear of failure are potent psychological factors in the world of professional sports.

4. Media Pressure

Although it varies from country to country according to differences in culture, there is a general public perception that sports stars have things too easy. In the UK in particular, soccer stars are seen as earning unjustly exorbitant salaries, yet this doesn’t apply to anyone who is successful in business.

Ex-professional EPL player Kevin George is the UK’s leading spokesman for the mental health challenges that come with soccer stardom.

We let things happen in football that we wouldn’t let happen anywhere else. In today’s game players are simply labelled by their salary, even by their fans, rather than for who they are in terms of their hearts and minds. Professionals who dedicate their life to their sports career become victims in the media overnight for even the most irrelevant things. Players struggle to view themselves from a human perspective, trapped in a bubble. For some reason there’s a misunderstanding that we don’t need to look after the mental well-being of players. The truth is the opposite.

A New Level of Mental Health Awareness Through COVID-19

It’d be hard to find anyone who hasn’t experienced the many challenges of the pandemic, but at least one upside appears to be how it is revealing the psychological vulnerability of athletes.

Recently released NCAA research during the 2020-21 school year showed that up to 36% of athletes listed COVID-19 health concerns as a factor negatively impacting their mental health. Quarantine periods, combined with COVID testing 3-6 days per week and dealing with the associated pressures of the pandemic has placed a heavy mental toll on many student-athletes. The frequency of self-assessed mental health concerns is twice as high as the prior year, with around a quarter of all college athletes in the study reporting feelings of overwhelming anxiety.

There is also the emotional impact on athletes who have their career goals crushed through cancelled competition events. As Michigan State University Gymnast Lea Mitchell explained, “Personally, it was very sad, because it was my senior year and you work 17-plus years for this moment and for it to be cut short was just heartbreaking.”

The Need for Support

Mary Fry, professor of health, sport & exercise science at Purdue University contextualized COVID mental health research findings, and how they also point to a solution.

For a lot of athletes, this pandemic might be the biggest challenge they've faced in life. We found that those athletes who perceived they were part of a strong, caring team environment reported experiencing greater psychological well-being and support and care from coaches and teammates.

In an effort to enhance the mental wellbeing of NFL players, the Washington Football Team hired psychologist Dr. Barbara Roberts as the team’s first full-time Director of Wellness and Clinical Services. However, she is only fourth full-time clinician with a Ph.D in psychology currently working for the NFL. Once professional teams start to understand their athletes from a wellness perspective, everyone will benefit.

The takeaway? Athletes need to be heard and supported just like everyone else – it’s not about being superhuman, but just human.

Want to delve deeper into the human side of sport? Then also check out this blog.

Understanding the Whole Experience of Football

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