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Why Are Athletes at a High Risk for Mental Health Issues?

Meg Mulroy, LPC

More than ever, the relationship between mental health and sports is being put on the map because of athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. Biles and Osaka both recently chose their mental wellness and safety over competing, and it has gotten folks thinking about the importance of mental health in sports with a new lens.  When we look at athletes (especially professional athletes), it is easy to imagine that their internal and private experiences match their outward appearance:  tough, resilient, and strong. In reality, these athletes are just like us and experience a wide range of emotional and mental issues. Below are some risk factors that make athletes very susceptible to mental health issues. 

Intense Pressure:  There is a lot of pressure put on athletes at any level. If you are competing at a college or national level, chances are there are a lot of eyes on you. There may even be people betting on you and placing unrealistic expectations on your performance. And if you are competing in high school or college, there is also pressure to perform academically. When people are watching your every move, your mistakes can often be looked at with a microscope. Many athletes struggle with anxiety for this very reason. 

Complex Interpersonal Relationships: Athletes often have to work with a team of coaches, peers, and trainers. With this, you are bound to not get along with everyone and athletes have to figure out at an early age how to navigate these relationships.  In my experience swimming and playing water polo, I had two very different coaches. One who used gentle encouragement and believed in me to help me succeed and one who pushed me too hard, often times using shame or the silent treatment to get a point across and encouraging us to push harder when we should have been encouraged to listen to our bodies. Turns out, I had a lot more fun with a coach who was gentle, and I also performed a lot better. Additionally, athletes also run the risk of being abused by staff they trust. The survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse are now dealing with the pain and trauma he inflicted.  When athletes put their trust into coaches and trainers that do not have their best interest at heart, they run the risk of injury, low self-esteem, depression/anxiety, and a lack of confidence. 

Exhaustion: The expectation for athletes is higher than ever and certain athletes are training for more hours in a day than they are in school or spending with family and friends. Not only is the time required to train exhausting, but sports are also very mentally exhausting. Memorizing plays, watching old tapes, and being mindful as to what’s happening on the field with you and your teammates requires a lot of concentration and can leave athletes feeling emotionally bereft. 

Guilt: There can be a lot of misplaced guilt that is put on athletes. When your team loses; spectators, teammates, or even coaches can be quick to place blame on a specific player.  Take for example the plight of a goalie in soccer or water polo. Your goalie can only be as good as its defense, but often times goalies feel guilty and responsible if their teams loose. Carrying around guilt that isn’t yours can be confusing and lead to a depressed mood and burn out in your sport. 

Stigma: Athletes are celebrated for their bravery, resilience, and tough exteriors. This can make it exponentially more difficult for athletes to get the help they need. When athletes are reinforced for behaviors that exemplify their toughness, asking for help may be viewed by them and others as weak or as a failure. Many athletes struggle in silence because of this stigma. 

If you are competing in any sport, I highly recommend working with a therapist to help you work through the very unique challenges that athletes face. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our counselors in Chicago that can help you navigate these challenges. Retrieve From:

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