Mental Health in Athletes and the Pressure to Perform

When you think about sports, it’s often thought of as fun, entertaining, and something that brings people together. However, athletes tend to be under a lot of pressure to perform in addition to stress from school, family, and everyday life. All of this can significantly impact their mental health and well-being. It’s easy to see athletes as strong, persevering, and “superhuman” when performing at elite levels. But playing sports does not make athletes immune to mental health challenges. Instead, athletes may be more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues — many of which can be treated through virtual counseling and other means. Now more than ever, it’s important to address mental health in athletes.

The Truth About Mental Health in Athletes

In the US, just over forty-six million people are living with mental illnesses. At some point in their lives, one in five adults will be battling a mental health condition. Some ways to manage mental health conditions include therapy, medication, a healthy diet, and regular exercise.

Toxicity of Sport Culture on Athletes’ Mental Health | Hillary Cauthen | TEDxTexasStateUniversity – TEDx Talks

When it comes to competitive sports, athletes are under heavy pressure to perform. Student-athletes are under even more pressure to maintain their grades and still perform well on the field.

Thirty-three percent of young adults, especially those playing college sports, experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Only thirty percent of them seek help. These are young people who then move on from college and continue playing at a pro-level. Stress and pressure can manifest in different forms. A massive thirty-five percent of professional athletes suffer from issues like eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Some athletes are coming out and openly talking about mental health. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, NBA’s Kevin Love, and USC Volleyball player Victoria Garrick are just a few who are telling their stories. While there is still a lot to do with mental health in professional athletes, the conversation has begun. 

Mental Health Challenges Athletes Face

Every athlete has a desire to improve themselves. Mental training and sports psychology can help them become better athletes. But, beneath all this need to improve is mental pressure that not many people notice. 

High Expectations

Athletes, especially those who play at elite levels, are held to a higher standard by themselves, peers, and the public. With such high expectations, athletes will judge how they perform on how society expects them to perform. 

Male athlete in sportswear sitting alone on a running track showing mental health in athletes.
With Such High Expectations, Athletes Will Judge How They Perform (Image Source: Shutterstock)

As a result, many feel frustrated when they can’t meet these expectations. It doesn’t help that coaches and some athletes think this kind of pressure is a confidence booster. The truth is when an athlete doesn’t meet these ridiculous expectations, their confidence is undermined, and stress, anxiety, and depression start creeping in.

Balancing Sports and Life Responsibilities

Athletes have to balance their careers with things like businesses, family, and friends. Despite this, many people expect athletes to perform well on the pitch, adding a lot of pressure. 

So what do most athletes do with such pressures? They put on a brave face, smile for the cameras, and continue doing what they do best. The result is stress and depression in the long run. 

Social Approval and Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is characterized by a strong desire to succeed, worrying about results, outcomes, and others’ thoughts. Social approval and fear of failure go hand in hand. Athletes worry about not meeting societal expectations in their performance. This social approval influences how much pressure an athlete will put on themselves to win.

Watch: If You’re Afraid To Fail – Mel Robbins

Managing Past Trauma and Current Stressors

Many people have traumas from their past, and athletes are no different. Athletes feel a lot of pressure, which means they struggle to stop and deal with past traumas and other stressors in life. When you bottle up your feelings for so long, they will come flooding out at some point, and the consequences can be dire. 

Mental Health in Athletes: How to Manage Stress and Cope

On July 27, 2021, Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts and the face of the US Olympic gymnastics, walked away from the Tokyo Olympics. The decision shook the entire athletic world, and she received much criticism for it. As it turned out, Simone didn’t withdraw from the competition due to a physical injury. She did so for her mental health. It was a bold statement and one she has stood by since then. Even well-honed athletes have mental conditions. So, how can athletes cope with mental health issues?

Simone Biles gymnast at Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games artistic gymnastics competition.
Simone Withdraw From The Competition Due To Mental Health (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Be Aware of the Signs of Stress

Stress can manifest itself physically or emotionally. By understanding the signs of stress, you can take action to feel more in control. Anger, fear, sadness, worry, and other emotions indicate stress. Physical symptoms of stress may include digestive issues, libido changes, decreased energy, insomnia, chronic pain, headaches, and acne. By recognizing the signs of stress, you will be in a better position to seek help and find ways to reduce stress.

Seek Support 

Having a support system is very important in managing mental health conditions. There’s a lot of pressure on athletes, especially when it comes to their careers. Find someone to talk to when you feel like you are drowning. These small talks can make all the difference in your mental health journey.

Happy marathon runner greeting with group of supporter at finish line after the race.
Find Someone To Talk To When You Feel Like You Are Drowning (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises can reduce anxiety and stress. Breathing is a vital part of life that occurs involuntarily. When you breathe in, there is a healthy exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood cells. 

Improper breathing can upset this exchange, which leads to anxiety, panic attacks, and other emotional disturbances. So, next time you’re feeling anxious, try incorporating breathing exercises like the pranayama yoga techniques

Having a Routine

Most of the time, feeling a lack of control can result in stress. As an athlete who cares about their mental well-being, try to minimize changes in your life by having a consistent routine. 

Visualize Success

Visualization is a very powerful technique that can help you relieve stress. Visualization involves the use of mental imagery to reach a relaxed mental state. When you visualize success, it can help you cope with panic attacks and other panic disorders.

The Most Powerful Visualization Technique to Manifest Anything You Want in Life | Law of Attraction – Master Sri Akarshana

Practice Yoga

Yoga has so many benefits that go beyond physical fitness. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an excellent technique for bringing harmony and balance. By combining yoga and meditation, it helps reduce pain by reconnecting the body and the mind. The mind plays a significant role in so many stress-related disorders.

Mental Health in Athletes: Identify and Understand Signs of Stress

As more and more people talk about mental health, it creates awareness in society. Athletes are held to an abnormally high standard and are often seen as the definition of perfection. This pressure leads to unnoticeable mental injuries. There is a need to recognize that athletes are humans too who are susceptible to mental health conditions. And when an athlete withdraws from a competition, not due to physical injury but mental health, it’s important to embrace it rather than criticize.