With the goings-on in the Olympics recently, mental health has certainly caught the public eye. As the audience, it’s easy to forget that there are people up there putting their all – careers, energy, wellbeing, emotions – into performing for our entertainment. Let’s take a step back and explore the context for the discussion of mental health in professional sports, the changes that are happening now, and how that can communicate to mental health in the public space.
An academic article from 2011 , explored the state of mental health disorders in sports. It says “mental health disorders are as common in professional sports as they are within the general population” . This is in stark contrast to the long-held notion that professional athletes are less prone to mental health disorders by way of being as mentally fortitudinous as they are physically. It continues on to say that a “tendency toward [alcoholism] and eating disorders is considerably [higher] in athletes…” I take this to mean that not only are athletes just as likely to be dealing with anxiety and depression, but they are at an increased risk of turning to alcohol and unhealthy dieting practices as a coping mechanism. Translation: There is a cultural and social influence that limits the number of acceptable outlets and mechanisms for mental health needs.
Athletes are highly regarded in society, but it comes at a cost; it is a position of extreme pressure and scrutiny. The public expects athletes to behave like heroes and role models but we forget they are humans who make human mistakes. They are national figureheads but can be labeled “failures, losers, traitors, or even criminals…” overnight. This is an enormous amount of social pressure that nobody prepares a budding young athlete to experience.
An athlete’s peak in some sport disciplines “takes place during adolescence and puberty…”  before an individual has time to mentally develop, and is robbed of the opportunity and resources to do so. Yet now we’re expecting them to represent their respective countries, the hopes, and dreams of their compatriots, on the international stage? This is an aberrant amount of pressure for anybody to deal with, much more for a teenager.
The biggest names in sports have run-ins with mental health. In 2014, Michael Phelps was arrested for his second DUI and was given a 6-month competition ban . He went on to seek help from “a therapist for depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.” Andrew Luck retired from the NFL at just 29 years old because his wellness was suffering at the hands of “a constant cycle… of injury, pain, and rehabilitation.” Rhonda Rousey broke records by winning 6 UFC title defenses before her first professional loss in Nov of 2015. “After losing her title, Rousey admitted to thoughts of suicide.” Jeremy Lin the first Asian American basketball player to win an NBA championship had panic attacks before games in his first season in the CBA. A teammate went so far as to text him and let him know “through the first 30 games of [this] season I would see so much fear in you.”  Kevin Love, “a five time All Star, and member of the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. Olympic team,” experienced a very public panic attack at the age of 29. These are huge names in professional sports, yet they are just as, or more, susceptible to mental health problems.
The signs have been there for a long time, why are we talking about this now?
In The News
Simone Biles, considered to be the best gymnast in the world and was favored to win the Gold Medals for the US this year, shocked everybody by withdrawing from the competition. She said her mental health was suffering. The interesting thing about mental state in gymnastics is it can affect the athletes ability to keep track of the ground, also known as “air sense” . This means that choosing to go and perform in a poor mental state has real repercussions for her physical safety. She has faced a lot of backlash, but also overwhelming support for being brave enough to put herself first. In an interview Simone credited Naomi Osaka, considered the 2nd best tennis player in the world who also withdrew to work on her own mental wellbeing, for being her inspiration.
Let me be clear: putting yourself before everybody and everything else takes bravery. It takes immense bravery. – Dr. Bryan Weinstein
Let me be clear: putting yourself before everybody and everything else takes bravery. It takes immense bravery. Simone Biles is putting her career, her money, and reputation on the line to preserve the one thing that EVERYBODY needs, her mind. It truly is an obvious choice to make when you consider the risks of performing when you shouldn’t, the risk to your person, career, and mind, but one that is difficult to take in the face of competition, history, and the public.
I am profoundly proud of the way these amazing, powerful, courageous, generation Z and young millennial athletes are leading the charge on mental health in professional sports. They are fighting generations of toxic deep-seated thinking and putting it behind them and, hopefully, all of us.
A Bright Future
The more and more we talk about, fight over, discuss, and disagree about mental health the more we normalize it. All the athletes who are coming out and talking about their challenges, who are making the right decisions day in and day out, are instrumental in making Mental Health easier to talk about and to work on. The idea that we can “tough it out” when talking about mental health, is as antiquated as the idea that “therapy is just for women and the weak.” They are both toxic, unhelpful, untrue, and need to be left in the past.
This is an important topic to me specifically because my team and I treat mental conditions every day; I promise you it is a disease as serious as stroke, heart attack, amputation… you name it. We are talking about an invisible, pervasive, deadly disease that no one can return from without help.
We are entering an age of sincerity; of saying and doing what we mean, and listening, valuing, and understanding each other. We can be better, we can work together, we can all be happier by accepting and working on our mental health. The more we focus on it, the better it will get. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Kevin Love, Jeremy Lin… the list goes on. All these athletes leading the way on being open about their problems, who are struggling under the weight of their position and are finding a way to use it for good. We really just need to talk about it.
It may never feel like the right time to make this choice. That just means it’s always the right time to put yourself first; OK Starts Today, even when the world’s eyes are on you.