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The Impact of Mental Health on Athletes

In July, Simone Biles sent shockwaves through the world of sports. The 24-year-old gymnast, considered the greatest in the sport’s history, withdrew from Olympic competition in Tokyo to prioritize her mental health. Biles’ decision created an outpour of support from fellow athletes, fans and beyond, adding her to the growing list of star athletes who have spoken out about their struggles with mental health.

The Impact on Professional Athletes

On the stage of professional sports, there is an expectation for greatness. The execution of an elite-level skillset paired with the ability to perform in the highest pressured situations. While this expectation for greatness is understandable, this expectation can come with the unfortunate dehumanization of athletes. Many consumers of sport recognize athletes as individuals who get paid an immense amount of money to compete in a sport, leading to a narrative that they must always perform. For the fan, there might be personal involvement leaning on how an athlete performs. Personal rooting interests, fantasy sports, and gambling, can all create a disconnect from the athlete as a participant in the game, and the athlete as a human being. Another example of external scrutiny for an athlete might come from team or ownership. If an athlete signs a max contract, is brought in as a highly touted prospect, or is labeled the savior of an entire sport (i.e., Simone Biles), there is tremendous weight on the athlete to meet the expectations of those investing in their abilities. And we cannot forget about the expectation of self. Athletes can often put more pressure on themselves than anyone. It is engrained in these athletes from a young age, that they are destined for great things. There becomes an internal desire to continue to achieve, but when does it become good enough? Sport can be an escape, an opportunity to put the rest of the world away and focus on personal growth and achievement. But with the physical and psychological demands of being an athlete, the environment of sport can begin to take a severe toll on one’s mental health.

Mental Health in Modern Sports

With Simone Biles being the most recent example, a growing number of athletes have spoken out about their own personal dealings with mental health. 23-time Gold Medalist Recipient Michael Phelps has been extremely open in reflecting on his struggles with anxiety and depression. Andrew Luck, former Indianapolis Colts quarterback, shocked NFL fans when he suddenly retired from the league at just 29 years old. He cited that a constant cycle of injury and rehabilitation was affecting his wellness. One of the more prominent voices in the mental health movement has been NBA All-Star, Kevin Love. Love experienced a panic attack during a game and began seeking therapy shortly thereafter. Love continues to serve as a pioneer in helping fellow athletes speak out about their own personal experiences with mental health. With so many athletes’ coming forward on this topic, the conversation of aiding these issues is well under way.

Mental Fitness vs Mental Health

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. For an athlete, it’s extremely common to take necessary time to recover from physical injury. There are systems and protocol in place to help prevent athlete’s from getting injured and help aid their recovery process in case of injury. So, what happens when an athlete needs to tend to their mental health? While the topic of mental health has risen to the surface, measures are being implemented across the world of sports to assist athletes. Implementing mental fitness calls for building an environment and behaviors that encourage positive mental health. The focus is to minimize bad stressors and build off good stress. Whether we realize it or not we all might be faced with mental health problems, even professional athletes. Finding ways to combat and live with these effects is important to our livelihood both professionally, and personally. Athletes have set a strong precedent for accepting and taking on personal dealings with mental health, and have done so in the public eye.

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