Concerns About Athlete Mental Health In Sports

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Helping athletes with poor mental health is a subject of study that has gained plenty of popularity over the years. Driven in part by the raising of awareness of elite athletes who have suffered and or continue to suffer with mental health, this topic has deserved to earn the momentum it has attained in recent years and is on the right path to gain even more. Some of the athletes that struggle with mental health and that have had the courage to speak out upon it include baseball players David Freese (St. Louis Cardinals), Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds), Olympic swimmers Ian Thorpe (USA), Michael Phelps (USA), Boxers Frank Bruno (United Kingdom), Ricky Hatton (United Kingdom), and several other athletes ranging from almost every sporty worldwide.

Efforts in putting this growing subject of discussion more into the spotlight have been very significant, but there is still more that can be done as there are plenty of questions yet to have been answered. One of those questions being, what are the main reasons why athletes struggle with mental health? With helping those who need it comes understanding why they are going through it, this text aims to point out some of the main factors in influencing the poor mental health within the athlete population. These include: pressure of performance, over-training as well as ways to help an individual that is suffering.

Pressure of performance is one of the biggest factors in affecting the mental health of athletes around the globe. Some may consider the following a good thing, others a bad one, but, sports can be described or compared to intense competition which brings all sorts of stressors to those who play the game. With intense competition comes worrying about performance and with that worry comes pressure. The concept of physical or mental distress is defined as pressure. More simply, we experience pressure when we feel the worries about doing our best. Pressure is generally viewed as a negative anxiety when a task seems too difficult to handle.

It is an athlete’s perception in terms of how he or she views the situation. It comes from uncertainty; not knowing how to cope with it or not knowing how to deal in a given situation. It is therefore closely linked to uncertainty and doubts about your ability to handle a situation and the resulting concerns. The feeling of the pressure for a player during an important game is evident; for example, take tennis. Players constantly yell excuses for everyone to hear, there is a reason for that.

Some players will try to convince themselves that shouting helps vent their anger, channel it out instead of keeping it in. Mostly, it’s a simple issue of self-esteem where players tell everybody who cares to listen that this isn’t how they play normally. The only issue there is with that is, it is in fact how they play. So players end up commenting on their mistakes and telling the world to protect their self-esteem and ego. Clemson University recently published an article on the matter concerning their sports teams and how they dealt with in game stress. A surprising 38% said they have or still blame their teammates while on the field during a game or practice. Even though they are on the verge of taking their careers to the professional level, some of their athletes still find themselves blaming others on the field which can be a sign of high level of stress and lack of knowledge on how to deal with it. All things considered, the stress from pressure can easily build up for an athlete, especially for those who have a busy schedule. It is crucial to be able to deal with it as an athlete whether their professional, NCAA, or amateur because pressure can amount for anyone and there are simple ways of coping with it.

For athletes who may suffer from stress or pressure, a variety of coping mechanisms are available. Every athlete has to figure out which one works best for them, and that may take them a while to try out each strategy to see if it works for them. Many methods are available, including ‘progressive relaxation, visualization, biofeedback, autogenic training, mediation, stopping negative thinking, and improving trust’ (Hann). Reilly and Williams (2003) stated that there are seven different categories of demand in which an athlete may need to change in order to lower their stress and pressure levels.

These categories include: ‘physical, psychological and environmental pressure, expectations and pressure, relationship issues and life direction.’ A number of coping mechanisms may be used by athletes in each category to help limit stress and anxiety in that category. They suggest ‘rational thinking, pre-competition mental preparation, transformation into healthy acting attitudes and behaviour, and hard and smart training’ for physical demands. All of these mechanisms come before a physical activity and have the intention of making that activity easier, therefor making the pressure and stress levels lower. They suggested using ‘pre-competition mental preparation, management, positive focus and orientation, and hard and smart training’ for psychological demands. These also come before physical activity but given the category, it focuses more on the mental side of preparation which can help also to reduce pressure and stress during the activity.

Environmental demands did not have as many coping mechanisms as the two previously mentioned, but Reilly and Williams suggest that athletes should consider ‘time management and prioritization, as well as isolation from stressor and deflection.’ Ways of coping with stress and pressure while their highest standards are expected include ‘positive focus and orientation, hard and smart training, rational thinking and positive thinking.“ Stress and pressure can also come from relationships an athlete can have with other people. Whether this is a significant other or a just a friend, pressure and stress is present. Athletes are encouraged to try “positive focus and orientation, social support, striving for a positive working relationship, isolation and deflection, as well as rational thinking and positive self-talk.” There are numerous ways to help deal with life direction concerns including “time management and prioritization, rational thinking and positive self-talk.”

Athletes spend a lot of time playing the sport they love, however, they also spend a lot of time training and practicing to be the absolute best they can at what they do. With excess training can bring something called overtraining. To keep things simple, overtraining is training too much for too long ultimately resulting in decrease in performance. It is unknown about how much training is too much. Scientifically-determined guidelines to help define how much exercise is healthy and beneficial for the young athlete compared to what could be harmful and be overtraining, have yet to be discovered by experts. But, throughout peak growth velocity, injuries tend to be more common, and some are more likely to occur if there are underlying biomechanical problems. It is essential to have a sound training regime, recognizing that while repetition is important, it can cause harm. Sport-specific drills using a variety of modalities, such as water running on alternate days for the track athlete, can provide similar fitness benefits with less stress on the body.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends that one sports activity be limited to a maximum of 5 days per week with at least 1 day off from any physical activity being organized. Also, if the body is not given the appropriate time to regain, there is more risk of re-injuring or burning out completely. Realizing symptoms of this syndrome can be very beneficial to an athlete, these signs include insomnia, elevated resting heart rate, muscle soreness, loss of motivation and others. The effects of overtraining makes it harder on athletes and their mental health, when they can not train or perform at the top level, it can be very demoralizing. Avoiding overtraining can be crucial in keeping a stable mental health for any athlete around the world.

Preventing this syndrome can include rest, proper nutrition and changing workout habits. The following seven strategies will stear an athlete away from overtraining. Consumption of carbohydrates can help immensely. Carbohydrates help the muscle recover and give it energy after it has been worked. A lack of these puts the body in the state of “muscle catabolism” which means that muscle mass is consumed by the body to gain energy, this state essentially contradicts a workout as newly acquired muscle mass is consumed. Not taking breaks from training can end up hurting an athlete more than it helps. The lack of brakes makes it easier for an athlete to overtrain as the body does not get its proper recovery, time outside of the weightroom can be just as beneficial if not more than time in the weightroom. As soon as results and performance start to fade, a couple days of break will not hurt an athlete, it will benefit them. Training session duration is a key factor in avoiding overtraining.

After roughly an hour of training, testosterone levels start to drop and cortisol starts to rise. Testosterone is the main hormone that builds muscle and cortisol does the exact opposite, so when testosterone drops and cortisol rises, the workout becomes almost pointless. The strategy is to make sure to keep workouts around an hour at a time, longer duration could result in overtraining. It is possible that an athlete follows the three previously mentioned strategies but still has muscle soreness or lack of performance, however, a simple fix to this can be a relaxing massage. Massages will loosen tight muscles and get the lactic acid flowing better, as well increasing blood flow to optimise nutrition within muscles. Optimal performance can be a result of consistent massages (one or two per week).

Getting a sufficient amount of sleep per night is key in avoiding overtraining. Sleep helps in proper muscle recovery following a workout and as every individual is different, to keep things safe, seven to nine hours of sleep is recommended. Changing workout plans helps avoid overtraining, keeping the same movement while working out does work the muscle concerned, however, changing workouts while still focusing on the same muscle allows the muscle to build mass in different areas. This avoids overtraining because the muscle is worked differently than normal and the same constant pressure is not applied as much. Lastly, the intensity of a workout can benefit an athlete. Less intense workouts do not work muscles as much as a high intensity workout, but they still can gain mass. With mass still being gained, there still has to be a recovery period but since not as much mass is being acquired, therefor rest time is shortened. These seven strategies, if applied correctly, will help in avoiding overtraining for athletes. With no overtraining comes better mental health for athletes as they can keep performing at their best.

Avoiding poor mental health for athletes has been a topic of discussion that has recently received more popularity over recent years. Unfortunately, not all athletes are guaranteed to either receive proper treatment or to openly announce their struggles with their mental health.

An example of this is the story of an american teen who ran track and field for the University of Pennsylvania, Madison Holleran. Kate Fagan, analyst for ESPN, published a book telling Maddy’s story and representing her life that was ended far too soon. In high school, Maddy was an excellent athlete as she played soccer and ran track and field for both her school and city clubs. She won many state championships and school titles throughout high school. Nothing excited her more than the thought of college, she received offers from multiple schools for both sports she played, but she ended up committing to run track and field for Penn. In high school, she was described as a pleasant and loving girl that always loved to run, was rarely ever sad and always had a smile on her face. First year of college rolls around and what she had been fantasizing during her grade twelve year had not been a reality. At her first race at Penn, she expected to win by a large margin as she always did in high school, but instead finished in the middle of the one hundred and fourteen racers. This went on to happen time and time again and did not feel as special or as good of an athlete than she was.

 She had started feeling the pressure of performance. On top of her heavy workload at school, she felt the stress and pressure even more and that was the first step to the suffering of her mental health. Secondly, she was training for track every day of the week while at school, the situation got so bad to the point where Madison debated on quitting the team and dropping from Penn or even transfering to another school to pursue soccer. Her parents started to worry because this was unlike their daughter, her mood changed drastically when she was at home and her work habits plummeted.

Maddy’s mistake was keeping her emotions and suffering to herself and not telling anyone she needed help. This is the result of overtraining and pressure of performance, also the stress that comes with college. Madison ends up taking her own life by jumping off a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, her family is still looking for answers. Through the example of Madison Holleran, it is clear that mental health issues for athletes is very relevant and can happen to any athlete for any sport.

Mental health for athletes, thankfully, is a topic that is being talked about more and more and for athletes this is a good first step. In today’s sports community, we start to see more and more athletes becoming more comfortable in sharing their struggles and battle with their mental health. Often caused by overtraining and pressure of performance, athletes are becoming more aware of the threats they face while they play the sport they have dedicated their life to. Had this topic been under the spotlight many years earlier, it is possible that more lives could have been saved from suicide including the one of the late Madison Holleran. Unfortunately, athletes also avoid talking about this as mental toughness is thought to be more valuable to an athlete because that aspect supposedly builds a champion. It is time to take a step back and weigh out which is more important, winning or being healthy.

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