Let me start by saying that I’m not a clinical psychologist or doctor, I’m a practitioner who has personally experienced the depths of the mental health crisis. It’s a tragedy that so many athletes are experiencing mental health challenges because for many, it can takes years to recover from the damaging consequences. Mental health is a serious issue but outside of clinical psychologists, not many organizations are effectively helping to combat this destructive epidemic.
When we hear of the mental health crisis what do we think of first? Personally, when I first heard the term I thought that something was wrong with the athlete and that they had an incurable illness. It may be true that they have an illness but the problem is much more complex. I believe that the culprit of the mental health crisis is systematic within sport itself. The coaches, parents, sponsors, teams are all making the mental health crisis worse by placing undue pressure on athletes. This in turn causes feelings of inadequacy, illegitimacy, discontent, self-loathing, etc. which in turn leads to depression and self-medication through sex, drugs, and alcohol.
Mental health erodes as the pressures to perform exceed the joy that an athlete once had when they started playing sport. The better an athlete becomes, the more expectation they have on their shoulders. An athlete might be a successful undefeated amateur or youth but as soon as they start competing on a more competitive level, their chances of winning decreases. At some point they realize that they will never be good enough and that’s when the pain sets in and the mental health crisis can be exacerbated.
The solution for this crisis is not an easy one, but there are solutions. While the problem that has created this crisis is deeply ingrained in the culture of sport, the solution is complicated and often involves one-on-one counseling. It can take years to unwind the damage done to an athlete’s wellbeing. Organizations need to be more proactive about ensuring the overall wellbeing of their athletes, knowing that when an athlete is healthy, they perform better. Adopting practices that build confidence, identity and purpose outside of the confines of sport is a good start. Helping athletes find purpose greater than themselves will take the focus off the performance failures and onto something more meaningful.
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