Elite athletes are those who compete at the professional, Olympic, or collegiate levels. Elite athletes are seen as high-functioning individuals with various positive attributes such as being “focused”, “resilient,” “confident”, and “composed.”
- Elite athletes are those who compete at the professional, Olympic, or collegiate levels. But there has been in a lack of focus on mental health disorders (MHD) in the world of elite sports,
- The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “mental health is an integral and essential component of health,”
- Throughout their sporting careers, elite athletes face a unique set of stressors. Because they operate in very different environmental and social contexts, any of these stressors can lead to mental illness in an individual. These can be addressed through education, awareness and building a conducive environment for seeking help.
It is a common fallacy that only athletes who have no mental and emotional vulnerabilities succeed and are able to compete at the highest level. There has been a lack of focus on mental health disorders (MHD) in the world of elite sports.
However, the idea that elite athletes do not face moments of vulnerability or weakness is being challenged now. Research shows that elite athletes are vulnerable to and struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictions, and substance abuse.
The media has reported an increase in the number of elite athletes suffering from MHD, including Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, international cricketer Marcus Trescothick, Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, and international rugby player Johnny Wilkinson, US gymnast Simone Biles, and US tennis player Naomi Osaka, to name a few.
Mental Health and Well-being
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “mental health is an integral and essential component of health.” According to the WHO’s constitution, health is “a complete state of physical, emotional, and social well-being, rather than merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Going by this definition, mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.
It is a state of well-being in which an individual is aware of his or her own abilities, in which individuals can cope with life’s normal stresses, work productively, and contribute to their community. Physical challenges, such as intense training and injury, can lead to psychological challenges such as cognitive, emotional, or behavioural adversities.
Like the general population, athletes must deal with personal challenges such as relationships or traumatic life events. If not addressed properly, all of these stressors can have an impact on athletic performance, training, career transitions, interpersonal relationships, and physical rehabilitation.
A combination of sport-specific factors may increase an elite athlete’s risk of MHDduring their career. Elite athletes may be at a higher overall risk than their amateur counterparts if they suffer from severe musculoskeletal injuries, have had multiple surgeries, have poor sports performance, or are prone to maladaptive perfectionism.
Because exercise has an antidepressant effect, participation in sports can protect against mental health symptoms and disorders. It is also possible for an athlete to have symptoms of a mental health disorder without any link between their participation in elite sports and the specific mental health condition.
The cause and effect pattern could apply to the athlete from a number of external factors such as interpersonal relationships and nutrition habits. These studies show that athletes are exposed to various stressors and exhibit signs and symptoms of mental health disorders.
Specific Stressors for Athletes
Throughout their sporting careers, elite athletes face a unique set of stressors. Because they operate in very different environmental and social contexts, any of these stressors can lead to mental illness in an individual, affecting their performance on the pitch and subsequently on their mood off the pitch.
Examples of these stressors may be:
- Athletes nearing the end of their careers,
- Overtraining athletes who are not performing well,
- Expectations for performance,
- Injury, significant negative life events,
- Inadequate social support,
- Organisational factors such as travel and extended absences from home,
- Personal stressors (for example, family issues),
- Social media
- Educating athletes, coaches, support staff, friends, and families about symptoms of different mental health conditions and the difference between mental health, well-being, and illness.
- Spreading awareness about what constitutes mental hygiene, mental health routine, etc.
- Educating medical professionals in relation to the different high-performance sports contexts. Seminars for medical and sports psychology professionals involved with elite athletes
- Normalising and validating the issue of MHD and athletes’ vulnerability in elite sports will help to destigmatize the topic in this specific population.
- Providing information about the success of professional assessment and treatment of MHD to athletes and support staff.
- Reinforcing all behaviours that will facilitate help-seeking when athletes suffer from MHD, such as social support, positive relationships with service staff, confidentiality, time for therapy sessions, encouragement from others
- Building a healthy and more sustainable environment in which athletes feel comfortable and are able to ask for help without the fear of negative consequences for their careers.
As we become more open about mental health issues among athletes, we can see a positive change in this highly-competitive world. Only when the issue is acknowledged can we find solutions, and luckily for sportspersons dealing with MHD, there are a variety of options through which they could seek help, depending on their requirements.
- Examining the Role of Mental Health and Clinical Issues within Talent Development.
- The Mental Health of Elite Athletes: A Narrative Systematic Review
- The Role of Exercise in Management of Mental Health Disorders: An Integrative Review – PMC
- Mental health: strengthening our response
- Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement (2019) | British Journal of Sports Medicine