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Mental Health in Athletes

As much as we like to pretend athletes are machines of perseverance and dedication, they are human. Their emotional well-being is tied to their performance.

Navigation: Mental Health in Athletes, Why Do Athletes Suffer from Mental Health Issues?, Signs of Mental Health Issues in Athletes, The Stigma of Mental Illness in Athletes, Why is Addressing Mental Health Concerns Important for Athletes?, Athlete Mental Health: How to Manage Your Mental Health as an Athlete, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


Whether you’re a professional, a student, or just someone who enjoys playing sports, being an athlete can be very rewarding. You become physically fit because you get a lot of exercise, and it even improves your mental health.

Engaging in sports and physical activities is linked to better mental health. Regular exercise releases endorphins, which are known as “feel-good” hormones, leading to reduced stress, improved mood, increased self-confidence, and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression.

On top of that, you also learn discipline, time management, goal setting, teamwork, resilience, perseverance, and leadership.

However, it is also important to explore the other side of the coin. Being an athlete has its drawbacks, and in some cases it can actually take its toll on your mental health. This is especially true for professional athletes, but it can also apply to college athletes.

While exercise has positive effects on mental health, it doesn’t mean athletes are immune to things like depression and anxiety. In fact, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, around 35% of elite athletes struggle with depression, anxiety, burnout, and eating disorders.

In recent times, conversations about athlete mental health have become more prevalent. Sports superstars are coming forward and speaking out about the mental health challenges that they are facing within their industry. Athletes are trained to always rise to the occasion and thrive under pressure. But aside from having to achieve peak physical condition through training and competition, they also have to deal with stress in their daily lives.

As much as we like to pretend athletes are machines of perseverance and dedication, they are human. Their emotional well-being is tied to their performance.

The recent increase in athlete burnout and performance anxiety has highlighted the urgent need to address the mental health crisis within the sports industry. Here we will discuss the connection between athletes and mental health.


Mental Health in Athletes

About one in five adults in the US live with a mental health condition. This means over 46 million people are struggling with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, sleep disorders, etc.

Despite their ability to reach great heights and achieve incredible things in their chosen sport, athletes are human beings that also face stressors in their daily life. It’s easy to forget this given how often they display feats of strength, agility, flexibility, balance, and coordination.

They achieve so much and live up to high expectations. Successful athletes often gain exposure and recognition within their sport and beyond. This can lead to endorsements, sponsorships, and other opportunities for financial gain, as well as the chance to inspire and be a role model for others. But the more you achieve, the higher these expectations seem to be.

They are not made of stronger stuff than the rest of us. The reality is that they are even more prone to mental health issues because of their circumstances.

Even student athletes put themselves under so much pressure to try and achieve greatness to earn scholarships and eventually become pros.

The industry as a whole is beginning to recognize the importance of mental health in athletes. The intense pressure to perform, the demands of training and competition, injuries, and the constant scrutiny from the media and fans can all have a significant impact on athletes’ mental well-being. These are things that still need to be addressed and managed properly.

Some of the most common mental health problems faced by athletes are the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, burnout, and even substance abuse.

Athletes may experience high levels of anxiety related to performance, fear of failure, or the pressure to meet expectations. Depression can also occur due to various factors such as injuries, loss of form, or the stress associated with maintaining a competitive edge.

Eating disorders are also common. The emphasis on body image and weight control in certain sports can contribute to the development of eating disorders among athletes, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or orthorexia.

Some athletes experience burnout due to overtraining and overexerting themselves during training. The constant physical and mental demands of training and competition can lead to overtraining syndrome and burnout, where athletes experience a state of exhaustion, decreased motivation, and a decline in performance.

In some cases, professional athletes turn to drugs not only to enhance their performance but also to cope with stress, performance anxiety, or injuries.

Recognizing the mental health symptoms exhibited by athletes is the first step towards providing them the appropriate level of care.

It is important to remember that mental health is a complex experience, and each athlete may have unique challenges and needs. By addressing mental health concerns and promoting a holistic approach to athlete well-being, we can support their long-term success and health.


Why Do Athletes Suffer from Mental Health Issues?

Before we talk about mental health issues and how to recognize the symptoms in athletes, let’s briefly discuss the reasons why it’s so common for athletes to suffer from these problems.

For starters, they are no different from ordinary, non-athletic people. They get stressed too, and they face stressors outside of their field. But on top of that, the stress of having to train constantly can actually expose them to even bigger mental health problems.

Athletes often face intense pressure to perform at their best, whether it’s from themselves, their team, their coaches, or fans. The constant scrutiny and high expectations can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Even without that external pressure, many athletes use their sports performance to establish their identity and self-worth. For many athletes, their sport is not just a hobby or a profession but a significant part of their identity. When they face setbacks or injuries that prevent them from participating, they may struggle with a loss of self-worth and a sense of purpose, which can contribute to mental health issues.

Speaking of injuries, sports-related injuries can be physically and emotionally challenging for athletes. Dealing with chronic pain, undergoing surgeries and rehabilitation, and facing the uncertainty of returning to their sport can take a toll on their mental well-being.

Professional athletes face other unique challenges that add more stress to their mental state. For example, they may experience feelings of social isolation and loneliness due to frequent travel and demanding training schedules. They may miss out on social events or have limited time for personal relationships, which can impact their mental health.

If they are playing for a well-known team or representing their country, they may face even greater pressure to perform well.

Athletes are under constant public scrutiny. But it’s not just with their performances, but also their personal lives, and even physical appearances. This scrutiny can come from the media as well as the fans, and it can be overwhelming for any athlete.

Finally, athletes also face significant challenges when transitioning out of their sports career. The sudden loss of structure, identity, and social support that came with being an athlete can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and a sense of loss.

Unfortunately, mental health has not received as much attention as physical health in the world of sports. Many athletes may not have access to proper mental health resources or feel comfortable seeking help due to stigma or fear of negative consequences.

It’s important to note that not all athletes experience mental health issues, and many athletes have robust support systems and coping mechanisms to help them navigate the challenges they face. But the stressful culture, the lifestyle requirements, and the competitiveness of the industry pushes athletes to strive for perfection at the cost of their mental health.

So while we can assume that athletes have the same risk of mental health conditions as anyone else, the stressors they face are actually more significant.

Signs of Mental Health Issues in Athletes

Now that we understand the reasons for mental health problems in athletes, let’s talk about the signs and symptoms to watch out for. This can be extremely useful whether you’re a coach, you’re an athlete, or you have a loved one who is in this industry.

Being aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in athletes is crucial for early intervention and support. Here are some common signs that may indicate mental health issues in athletes:

First of all, you may see a noticeable decline in the athlete’s performance. They may have decreased motivation, concentration difficulties, or a sudden drop in athletic abilities. These can be a sign of underlying mental health concerns.

Mental health issues can impair an athlete’s ability to focus. They may struggle to make decisions and concentrate during training. They may seem forgetful, have difficulty following instructions, or exhibit poor decision-making skills.

The athlete may also exhibit frequent and extreme mood swings, including irritability, anger, sadness, or excessive emotional reactions. Athletes experiencing mental health problems may also display excessive worry, nervousness, or anxiety related to their sport.

In some cases, their mental health symptoms may affect their body, causing physical symptoms like racing heart, sweating, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or unexplained pain, even in the absence of any underlying medical conditions.

You may also notice other behavioral changes. An athlete who is usually social and engaged may suddenly withdraw from teammates, coaches, or social activities. They may avoid interactions, become more isolated, or show a lack of interest in connecting with others.

For parents, you may notice significant alterations in their sleep patterns, including insomnia or excessive sleeping. Athletes may have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experience restless sleep.

If an athlete loses interest in activities they enjoyed previously, including their sport, it may indicate the presence of mental health concerns. They may exhibit a lack of enthusiasm, reduced motivation, or struggle to find pleasure in training or competition.

To cope with their mental health symptoms, some athletes may turn to substance abuse. They will drink alcohol or take drugs to cope with their mental illness. Increased or new substance use patterns can be a warning sign. Coincidentally, mental illnesses and substance use disorders often co-occur.

If an athlete is struggling with mental health issues, they may frequently express negative thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, or express a belief that things will never get better. They may talk about wanting to give up or express thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Keep in mind that these signs and symptoms may vary from one person to another. Also, their presence does not always indicate that the person is dealing with a mental health issue. However, if you notice persistent or concerning changes in an athlete’s behavior, this is when you step in and offer your support.

A lot of athletes may feel pressure to hide their struggles with mental health. They don’t want to disappoint their team or lose their position. But if they are dealing with mental issues, you need to encourage open communication so that they can get the help that they need.

If you recognize these signs in yourself or an athlete you know, look for a mental health professional that can give them proper treatment.

The Stigma of Mental Illness in Athletes

One of the reasons why athletes sometimes refuse to seek treatment or even admit that they have a problem is because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. This is not necessarily exclusive to the sports industry. When it comes to mental health problems, people are afraid of being judged by others around them.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a significant issue in society, and it is not limited to any specific group or profession. However, athletes face unique challenges when it comes to mental health due to the competitive nature of their careers and the regular scrutiny they face from the public.

Because athletes are in the spotlight, their performance, behavior, and personal lives are closely monitored and critiqued. They may hide their mental health problems out of fear that it may affect their reputation and career prospects.

There is also a common misconception that athletes, by virtue of their physical abilities and success, are immune to mental health issues. This belief can create an environment where athletes feel compelled to hide their struggles, fearing that they will be perceived as weak or incapable.

Additionally, the culture of sports often prioritizes physical toughness and resilience over emotional well-being. Athletes are frequently encouraged to push through pain, fatigue, and stress, which can make it challenging for them to recognize and address mental health concerns.

It is important to emphasize that seeking help for mental health is not an admission of failure nor is it a sign of weakness.

When people avoid mental health treatment, the issues are exacerbated and lead to even bigger problems. This creates a cycle of silence and shame, even though mental health challenges are more common than you think, including in the world of sports.

Because of this culture of shame, athletes may feel isolated and unable to openly discuss their experiences or seek support from other people. Some may even turn to illicit or prescriptions drugs to cope with their condition.

Addressing the stigma of mental illness in athletes requires a multifaceted approach. Education and awareness campaigns can play a crucial role in challenging stereotypes and promoting understanding of mental health issues.

One particular moment that helped push back against the stigma of mental illness was when Simone Biles, the world’s best gymnast, walked off the floor during the gymnastics final at the Tokyo games due to her mental health concerns. With Biles openly talking about her mental health struggles as an athlete, and other elite athletes doing the same, others may be more compelled to share their experiences and further fight the stigma of mental health.

Athletes, coaches, and sports organizations need to prioritize mental health and create an environment where seeking help is encouraged and supported. This can include implementing mental health programs, providing access to mental health professionals, and fostering a culture of openness and support.

Furthermore, the media can contribute to reducing stigma by responsibly reporting on mental health issues in sports, avoiding sensationalism, and providing accurate information about mental health resources available to athletes.

Tackling the stigma of mental illness is essential for promoting the well-being of athletes as well as other people who are not involved in sports. This can create a healthier and more inclusive sporting culture.

Why is Addressing Mental Health Concerns Important for Athletes?

While sports tend to place a great emphasis on physical health, mental fitness is very important for athletes as well. This improves their overall performance and helps them achieve their physical goals. Addressing mental health concerns can help improve their mental fitness, which will actually benefit their game in the long run.

Here are several reasons why mental fitness is important for athletes:

Focus and Concentration: Sports require intense concentration and the ability to focus on the task at hand. Mental fitness helps athletes develop and maintain a high level of focus, enabling them to block out distractions and perform at their best.

Emotional Regulation: Athletics often involve high-pressure situations, intense competition, and the need to manage emotions effectively. Mental fitness equips athletes with the skills to regulate their emotions, stay calm under pressure, and make rational decisions, leading to better performance.

Confidence and Self-Belief: Mental fitness enhances an athlete’s self-confidence and belief in their abilities. It helps them maintain a positive mindset, overcome self-doubt, and perform at their peak, even in challenging circumstances.

Goal Setting and Motivation: Mental fitness enables athletes to set clear, realistic goals and stay motivated throughout their training and competitions. It helps them develop resilience, perseverance, and the drive to push past obstacles and achieve their objectives.

Visualization and Mental Imagery: Mental fitness involves the use of visualization and mental imagery techniques. Athletes can mentally rehearse their performances, visualize success, and improve their skills without physically practicing, leading to enhanced muscle memory and performance outcomes.

Stress Management: Sports can be physically and mentally demanding, leading to stress and pressure. Mental fitness equips athletes with strategies to manage stress effectively, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and stress-reducing routines, enabling them to perform optimally under challenging circumstances.

Injury Recovery and Rehabilitation: Mental fitness is crucial during injury recovery and rehabilitation. It helps athletes maintain a positive mindset, stay motivated, and overcome the mental and emotional challenges that come with being sidelined, which can aid in a quicker and more successful return to sports.

Team Dynamics: Mental fitness is not only important for individual athletes but also for team dynamics. It helps athletes develop better communication skills, teamwork, and leadership qualities, fostering a supportive and cohesive team environment.

Overall, mental fitness plays a vital role in optimizing athletic performance, enhancing focus, concentration, emotional regulation, confidence, motivation, and stress management. But more importantly, it improves athletes’ mental health and quality of life, which are essential even when they are not playing.

Athlete Mental Health: How to Manage Your Mental Health as an Athlete

So how can an athlete take care of their mental health even within their stressful environment? There are several strategies you can employ. The first step is recognizing that mental health should be a priority. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.

Since your mental health affects your performance in sports, use this as extra motivation to take care of yourself.

It is also important to establish a healthy work-life balance. Dedicate time to activities outside of your sport. Engage in hobbies, spend time with loved ones, and pursue other interests. This balance can help prevent burnout and provide a sense of fulfillment beyond your athletic endeavors.

Engage in activities that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and self-care. This could include practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, journaling, or spending time in nature. Find what works best for you and incorporate it into your routine.

Sports can be demanding, and stress is inevitable. Learn effective stress management techniques, such as practicing mindfulness, using visualization and positive self-talk, or engaging in hobbies and activities unrelated to your sport. Taking breaks and having downtime is crucial for recovery and reducing stress.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Set realistic and achievable goals Break them down into smaller milestones to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Celebrate your successes along the way, as this can boost your motivation and confidence.

You can even do something as simple as monitoring your inner dialogue and replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Cultivating a positive mindset can improve your confidence and resilience.

Remember, you don’t have to deal with your mental health condition all on your own. Build a support system by surrounding yourself with understanding people. Develop open lines of communication, so you can freely discuss any concerns or challenges you’re facing.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Mental health professionals, such as psychologists or sports psychologists, can provide guidance, support, and specific techniques to help you navigate challenges and improve your mental well-being.

Your sport should be a source of fulfillment and passion. One of the greatest benefits of being an athlete is the pure enjoyment and passion for the sport. Engaging in physical activity that you love can bring immense satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of fulfillment—just make sure it is not at the cost of your mental health or your relationships.

As for coaches and organizations, it is important to provide athletes with access to mental health support. Providing athletes with access to mental health professionals, such as psychologists or counselors who specialize in working with athletes, can be beneficial. Creating a supportive environment where athletes feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns is also essential.

If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health issues, whether they are an athlete or not, look for a treatment facility near you and learn more about their treatment programs. Your journey to recovery begins today.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.


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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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