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Professional Sports: Mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health

Jul 21, 2021 | Special Themes

By Constantinos Iacovides, Contributor

The ancients used to say ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’ and I think many people can get behind that. The relationship between mental health and physical health intuitively seems obvious. For starters, during and immediately after exercise, the human brain releases endorphins, chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine that literally make us feel good. So, it would make sense that regular good exercise can help stay away from mood disorders and maintain a healthy mental state. But what about athletes?

Studies suggest that both amateur and professional athletes are at risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety just as anyone else, despite exercising regularly. In fact, many athletes, even the ones with lavish lifestyles, suffer from conditions like these. This, however, should not come as a surprise since the age range of the majority of elite athletes in most sports greatly overlaps with the years of onset of many mental disorders.

Extensive research has indicated many factors that may impair the mental health of athletes such as relationship problems with spouses or family, injuries during competition or training, bad performances, overtraining and overwhelming pressure to perform just to name a few. These factors may contribute to the development of mental health disorders which in turn may have a negative impact on performance. About 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental illnesses, such as anxiety and chronic stress, eating disorders or even depression. Perhaps the most common condition in athletes, is performance anxiety, which is basically the fear of failure when undertaking a task under pressure. Performance anxiety has both physiological and mental symptoms that may affect performance such as high blood pressure, increased heart rate, twitching muscles, breathing difficulty as well as images of failure and loss of identity. Just imagine the damage that this could do before or during a major career-defining performance or competition.

So, how are athletes so vulnerable to mental health issues? There’s no clear answer to that unfortunately, but we can take a “wild” guess, that the increased money being poured into the sporting world over the last few years could offer part of the explanation. As the world of sports is increasingly being commercialized, athletes are seen more as products and less as human beings with feelings and insecurities, hence the loss of identity. Sponsors, managers and associations demand that their athletes maintain an image of a both mentally and physically fit superhuman just so that their fans are kept happy. But it could be that this forced suppression of athletes’ feelings drives them towards mental health issues. Research has indicated that merely expressing their actual feelings and thoughts could help athletes tackle performance anxiety and ultimately avoid any more severe mental health conditions in the future.

Just like any employer aiming to create a pleasant working environment to maximize the output of their employees, sports teams and associations should prioritize their athletes’ mental state. There are two major ways in which this can be done. First, the management of sports clubs could assign specialists through which athletes can express their feelings and thoughts in order to tackle their personal problems. Many teams have already started hiring sports psychologists in order to mentally prepare their players for major competitions, but it shouldn’t be kept at that. Athletes should be able to talk about their feelings and fears to specialists any time they wish to. The first step to tackling a mental health issue is always to acknowledge and express it and just like any human being, athletes should prioritize their mental health. Second, sports governing bodies should protect their athletes’ private lives as much as they can. Lack of privacy is perhaps one of the major sources of mental health problems in the world of sports. Being constantly followed around by fans, photographers or reporters is not something most people want, so it should be a priority to protect the private lives of athletes.

Separating personal problems from professional life is a skill every human should possess. But it is undeniable that when these problems start to take a toll on your mental health, it is impossible to perform well whatever that is you are doing. Athletes, just like everyone else, should attend to their mental health as much as they train for their sport in order to maximize their performance as well as to enjoy their unique lifestyle of performing to entertain. This should be a collective effort from both athletes and sports stakeholders to tackle these problems and to protect the athletes’ mental health and privacy.

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