Mental Health in Sports
Imagine having an entire team, an entire city or an entire country counting on you to do your job. Imagine having people critiquing your every move and any mistake means you’ll likely end up the butt of a joke on national television.
Sweating yet? Same.
Mental illness affects one in five people, but we sometimes forget that athletes are part of that equation too. We see athletes as superhumans. And how bad could it be getting paid (most of the time) to play your favourite sport? Athletes always seem toned, tanned, fit and ready to play. It seems like they just get up, push aside any kind of distractions and play their game. However, that’s not always the case.
“Mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness and is absolutely the antithesis of what athletes want to portray. ” - Dr. Thelma Dye Holmes.
When a player gets physically injured, it’s all over the headlines. But why are we so comfortable talking about something like a strained groin, yet still can’t bring up our v helpful therapy sessions without getting *side eye*? Why does expressing our feelings seem so hard? And why are we so uncomfortable hearing about them?
Bell Let’s Talk Day has started to encourage conversation around the stigma of mental health and while they’ve donated more than $100 million to mental health initiatives (make it rain Bell), we need to keep the conversation going the other 364 days of the year.
Athletes that keep the conversation going
It seems like we’re scared to speak up until we hear of a tragic story, like the death of NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau or Rick Rypien from the Vancouver Canucks. Suicide is an extremely complex issue, but deaths of amazing athletes remind us of the sometimes toxic culture that comes with sports that can exacerbate mental illness.
Recently, more and more athletes have shared their struggles with mental health like Canadian Clara Hughes (Olympic medallist in cycling AND speed skating, get it girl), Kevin Love, Ibtihaj Muhammad (the first Muslim American to compete for Team USA in a hijab and win a medal!) and Serena Williams.
“For the longest time, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness...that’s especially true from an athlete’s perspective. If we ask for help, then we’re not this big macho athlete that people can look up to.” - Michael Phelps told USA Today.
NBA star (and forever bromance partner of Kyle Lowry), Demar DeRozan, has openly talked about his struggles with depression. He said that the persona of “invincibility” he created growing up in Compton helped him in his athletic career, because coaches like confident players.
We asked rising Canadian heptathlon star, Georgia Ellenwood, for her take on mental health in the sports world to get a better look into this culture of ‘no pain no gain.’
“...if you show weakness of any sort — whether it be an injury, emotional instability or a lack of confidence, then you are assumed to be a less successful athlete in the long run.” - Georgia Ellenwood
Like DeRozan, she talked about creating a persona of invincibility; “I'm almost trying to convince myself that I am strong... I am capable... I am invincible... throughout the entirety of the competition, when that isn't always the case.” But that persona is hard to snap out of and being vulnerable off the track is hard, “without letting it affect your pride.”
With a number of 2018 NCAA Championship titles under her spikes (get it girl!), it’s obvious this rockstar knows how to train. But she says there is still a huge stigma in sports about being vulnerable with your mental health because of the pressure to always push your limits, get you through those hard workouts or kick your body into second gear.
The benefits of exercise and mental health are endless. But you know the saying ‘no such thing as a bad workout’? Yeah. Not exactly true. PhD sport psychology student, Emma Vickers, found a study that showed, “The similarities between ‘depression’ as a psychiatric disease and ‘overtraining’ as a consequence of continuous intense athletic training are remarkable.”
Georgia says it took her a long time to figure out that balance between pushing yourself without burning out. “I thought that I wasn't getting better because I wasn't training hard enough. I thought that I needed to push myself to the extreme until I saw the results I wanted.”
It was only when she enjoyed the process and started marking small milestones that things started to changes; “Sometimes it can be as significant as a whole second faster in a time trial or sometimes it can be as minimal as a quicker first step out of the starting blocks.”
The bottom line
Mental illness is not going away. And fortunately, the stigma around mental health is reducing thanks to initiatives like #BellLetsTalk as well as celebrities and athletes that talk about their struggles.
Everyone is fighting their own battle. And sometimes all it takes is for one person to share their story to help someone else who may be going through the same thing.
Asking for help (athlete or not) isn’t weak — it’s the bravest thing a person can do. So, here’s to all of us not judging other people, supporting each other and helping to fight the stigma against mental illness.
If you, or anyone you know is struggling, here are some resources;
Bell Let’s Talk Get Help Page (amazing place for resources, crisis lines, and general information)
Suicide Prevention (list of different resources available by province in Canada)
CBC Resource List of services available
The Loop made an amazing list of resources anyone can use
Your Life Counts - you can search crisis lines in your area/country
Suicide Hotlines - list of hotlines by country
WhatsApp made an incredible list of international hotlines and resources
Written by: Guest Author Kate Farrell
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