Mental health amongst athletes is a hugely neglected problem, with athletes being portrayed as invincible superheroes at the epitome of health. In reality athletics can be a minefield for mental health problems. Life as a professional/semi-professional sportsman is an extremely intense and gruelling environment. Athletes are under constant pressure from themselves, coaches, friends, family, and fans to perform to the highest standard. This has been demonstrated in many studies, one of which found that 13% of parents admitted to angrily criticising the sporting performance of their child1. The children in this study were aged 9 to 15, and were taken from a range of 10 different sporting backgrounds. In addition, another study discovered that over a third of young athletes said they had experienced emotional harm from their coaches, in the form of shouting, intimidation attempts and negative comments regarding performance2. Many athletes are also in constant fear of being dropped from teams and are under pressure to ensure their own funding. Additional to these externals sources of pressure, there are also strong internal pressures. Athletes put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform well, often basing their self-worth off their sporting achievement3, and developing an unhealthy perfectionist attitude4. This image of invincibility also means there is a strong stigma around mental health amongst athletes. As a result, studies have demonstrated that athletes are much more reluctant to seek help for their mental health compared to non-athletes5. However, it could be argued that this perfectionist, high achieving attitude might also contribute to their success, making them motivated to achieve goals and excellent time managers. Therefore, it is important that we recognise the benefits of these traits, but also manage them to ensure that they don’t become problematic.
“10-15% of student athletes experienced psychological problems that were extreme enough to require counselling”
This problem is not isolated to professional athletes, it can also be seen in student athletes. A study looked at mental health prevalence amongst student-athletes taking part in intercollegiate athletics programs sanctioned by the NCAA. They found that 10-15% of these athletes experienced psychological problems that were extreme enough to require counselling6. This was 2% above the rate for non-athletic students. Furthermore, eating disorders were far more common amongst female athletes compared to non-athletes, 8% suffering from bulimia and 1.5% experiencing anorexia. These figures are again, larger than those for non-athletic counterparts7. Student athletes also have the issue of balancing schoolwork and social activities with sport, and so are under heavy time constraints.
“I still go through times that are very challenging”
Growing public awareness of mental health problems amongst athletes means that there is hope for change and an end to this stigma. An increasing number of professional athletes are coming forward to talk about their experiences, including Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Victoria Pendleton. Phelps opened up about his issues, saying: “I still go through times that are very challenging. I do break down and maybe have a bad day, where I’m not in a good mental state. I understand that. It’s who I am. I guess it will always be something that’s a part of me”8. The government has initiated an action plan with several strategies aimed at raising awareness of mental health problems amongst athletes. These include training coaches and performance directors to pick up on key signs of mental health problems, as well as teaching them how they can act to promote mental health. It’s important that coaches are trained to identify these problems early so that they can be dealt with before they get out of control. Furthermore, individual clubs are responsible for proactively supporting their athletes from both a physical and mental health perspective. Funding from the national lottery is also going to be used to support athlete visits to mental health units, in order to try and reduce the stigma.
“What I’ve started to do with the Knicks, I can tell you, firsthand, has helped me tremendously”
– Marshall Plumlee
Progress is clearly being made, as you see an increasing focus amongst higher level athletes and their coaches on mental wellbeing. In particular, the use of mindfulness as a technique is becoming increasingly popular. Mindfulness has been used by many high profile athletes, such as Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Lebron James. It has also been introduced to many sports teams, for example Coach Philip Jackson incorporated it as a part of training for the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. Marshall Plumlee (Knicks player) has spoken about his experience of mindfulness, saying “what I’ve started to do with the Knicks, I can tell you, firsthand, has helped me tremendously”. Teammate Justin Holiday said that the sessions were useful but only “if you take it seriously”7. This does highlight the aforementioned problem; are enough athletes recognising the importance of their mental wellbeing? It appears we are moving in the right direction, however, there is still a way to go.
“…are enough athletes recognising the importance of their mental wellbeing? It appears we are moving in the right direction, however, there is still a way to go.”
Do not let this dishearten you! There are many ways that people can help at an individual level. This simply involves looking out for symptoms of potential mental health deterioration in friends who are athletes. These symptoms include, mood swings, social isolation, changes in sleep patterns and rapid weight changes, amongst others. If these symptoms persist, the next best step involves encouraging that individual to talk about what they are experiencing, and seek help if they think they need it. We can also help athletes through mindfulness exercises and also by simply being more conscious of our personal mental wellbeing and aware of its importance in fitness.
At Wattson Blue we are trying to provide simple tools for athletes and their coaches to monitor an athletes mental fitness. We want athletes and coaches to recognise that mental fitness is just another part of the training plan that may be personalised to fit each individual athletes in the same way that athletes receive personalised training Heart Rate or Power zones. This enables each athlete to maximise their training response and readiness for training and competition.
If everyone does their bit to raise awareness and promote good mental health amongst athletes, then the future of athletics is likely to look a lot brighter, with better and at the same time happier athletes!
1 – Shields DL, Bredemeir BL, LaVoi NM, Power FC. The sport behaviour of youth, parents, and coaches: the good, the bad, and the ugly. J Res Character Educ. 2007;3(1):43–59.
2 – Alexander K, Stafford A, Lewis R. The experiences of children participating in organized sport in the UK, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh/NSPCC. 2011.
3 – Maffulli N, Longo UG, Gougoulias N, Loppini M, Denaro V. Long-term health outcomes of youth sports injuries. Br J Sports Med. 2010;44(1):21–25.
4 – Appleton PR, Hill AP. Perfectionism and athlete burnout in junior elite athletes: the mediating role of motivation regulations. J Clin Sport Psychol. 2012;6(2):129–145.
5 – Schwenk TL. The stigmatisation and denial of mental illness in athletes. Br J Sports Med. 2000 Feb 1;34(1):4-5.
6 – Watson, J.C., Kissinger, D.B. Athletic participation and Wellness: Implications for Counselling College Student-Athletes (2011). Journal of College Counselling.
7 – Gill (2008) – taken from statistic restated in this article: https://www.athletenetwork.com/blog/the-prevalence-of-mental-health-in-student-athletes