What sportsmen can do to support their mental health?

mental health issues, mental health, sportsmen mental health, sportpersons mental health, performance anxiety, Mpower, athlete mental health

Recently, West Indies Cricketer Chris Gayle publicly announced that he would prioritise his mental health over professional sport. Performance anxiety led 24-year-old Simone Biles, one of the most decorated American gymnasts of all time, to withdraw from the women’s team final in Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health. In June 2021, Japanese Tennis Player Naomi Osaka admitted that she finds it stressful to deal with the media before an intense tournament. Citing mental health issues, she refused to attend press conferences during the French Open. She mentioned that she has been dealing with severe depression for a while now.

Mental health issues affect all aspects of one’s life – one’s performance as a professional, one’s family and personal life and one’s overall well-being. It took Chris, Simone and Naomi countless hours of hard work, discipline and personal sacrifices to become top-notch athletes in the world. After achieving what few can ever achieve, if they chose to step back from prestigious tournaments, one can only imagine their mental plight. In fact, contrary to what people may believe, it would’ve actually been easier for them to push themselves and carry on with the sporting event, even if it would’ve been at the risk of a mental breakdown and subsequent downward journey in the long term. Instead, they sensibly chose to step back and not let their performance induced anxiety get the better of them. Their decision was one of self-care. It showed their keen insight into their own mental health; their degree of awareness.

Sportspersons work and train extremely hard, and with a lot of passion, on their game. The motivation and the objective behind this is ‘to win’. Winning gives them a high; it is the ultimate reward that they seek. Which is why, when a sportsperson loses, despite herculean efforts, it can be extremely demoralizing. Since the focus is more on the outcome and not on the process, a defeat is not easy to deal with. All the hard work can suddenly seem pointless and one may, at times, equate one’s self-worth with the result.

Need for conversations around mental health for Indian athletes

In India, there is a pitiful absence of designated psychologists in most sports. This only adds to the pressure and anxiety that athletes have to live with. And to make matters worse, in post-match press conferences, blame games are played and athletes are asked tough and sometimes insensitive questions that emphasize their defeat. The athlete is already going through the churn of dissecting and analyzing the loss. It’s a far cry from helping with the athlete’s anxiety and in fact only causes further distress. Which is why, we have seen athletes actually break down or respond in anger while talking to the media.

People idolize sports stars and have high expectations from them. We forget that no sportsperson ever plays to lose, but there are various factors that determine a win or a loss. We need to understand that sports icons are human beings, too. We know them as professionals, but not necessarily what they’re on the inside. They feel the same sentiments that we do. Sometimes the public and the media can be judgmental and insensitive. It is this attitude that requires to change. Our sporting culture should be based on appreciating a hard fought game and sportsmanship.

Regular mental health screening is the need of the hour

Success at the highest level of any competitive sport is 10% physical prowess and 90% mental strength. How mentally strong sports persons are during the game, how well they endure pressure and how well they keep their focus going – can be the defining factors. Which is why, just as athletes train hard and for a prolonged period to achieve their physical fitness and improve their game, they must consciously and continuously work towards building their mental strength as well. This can be achieved with putting mental health routines in place in our sporting culture. Athletes also need to be regularly screened for mental health concerns. Team management and coaches have to encourage them to acknowledge and accept any and every feeling, emotion or fear that they may be experiencing. They can work on building their resilience and learn effective coping mechanisms to deal with sports induced stress and performance anxiety, whether it is in their professional lives or personal ones. Talking things out with a sports psychologist if required is important. We need to promote a culture where athletes do not hesitate to talk openly about their mental health issues and seek help when needed.

Early indicators of mental illness can be nipped in the bud

Athletes push the boundaries not just physically, but also mentally. Winning can become an obsession and losing can be heart-breaking. Performance anxiety, struggling to stay in the team, overtraining syndrome, phobic anxiety while returning from injury and harsh criticism or trolling can be devastating on their mental health. There are so many warning signs that may point to a developing mental health concern in an athlete: decreased performance on the field, reluctance to train, sudden lack of motivation, changes in sleep patterns, weight gain, feeling fatigued or struggling with body pain and injuries, getting distracted easily and having problems focusing, self-medicating or an increasing dependence on alcohol or substances, social withdrawal, irritability or anger issues, and recurring conflicts with teammates or the coach.

When an athlete feels that he or she may be dealing with a mental health concern, taking time off and reassessing one’s state of mind and goals is critical, just as Chris, Simone and Naomi have chosen to do. Seeking professional help in the form of counselling and medication, if required, is an important step towards recovery. It’s time for change. It’s high time we value the mental health of our athletes.

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Neerja Birla
Founder and Chairperson, Mpower
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