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Mental Health & Sports: What’s the Connection?

Mar 27, 2024

In the realm of athletics, the focus is often on physical prowess, endurance, and skill. However, an aspect that is equally vital yet sometimes overlooked is mental health. The intersection of mental well-being and sports is profound, influencing athletes’ performance, resilience, and overall quality of life.

30% of women and 25% of men who are student athletes report having anxiety; only 10% of these seek care from a mental health professional. The competitive environment of college sports can create a high-stress atmosphere where athletes feel immense pressure to perform at their best consistently. There are many other contributing factors: balancing academics with rigorous training schedules, the constant evaluation from coaches, fans, and media, and injuries or performance setbacks which can create the fear of losing scholarships or future career opportunities.

But it’s not just collegiate athletes. Approximately 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental health concerns, and it’s not always easy to speak up. Still today, sharing vulnerability – especially when it comes to mental health – is seen as weak. Athletes, particularly male athletes, are expected to be strong, unphased, and perseverant. Athletes face immense pressure to excel, and the weight of these expectations can take a toll on athletes’ mental health, leading to stress, anxiety, and performance anxiety.

“My depression and my anxiety is never going to just disappear . . . it’s always going to be a part of me.” –Michael Phelps, American former competitive swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 28 medals

The mind-body connection is also undeniable in sports. Mental states directly influence physical performance, concentration, and decision-making abilities. Athletes who cultivate a positive mindset, practice visualization techniques, and manage their emotions effectively often experience improved athletic performance. Conversely, unresolved mental health issues can hinder an athlete’s ability to perform at their best.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health. You can neglect one without neglecting the other.” –Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history with seven Olympic medals

Fortunately, an increasing number of resources and support systems are available to athletes to prioritize their mental well-being. Sports organizations, governing bodies, and professional leagues are implementing mental health initiatives, providing access to counseling services, mental skills training, and support networks. Additionally, athletes are encouraged to lean on teammates, coaches, and trusted professionals for guidance and support.

“It’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.” –Naomi Osaka, number one ranked professional tennis player by the Women’s Tennis Association and a four-time Grand Slam singles champion

Despite growing awareness, mental health stigma persists in sports culture. Many athletes feel pressured to conceal their struggles for fear of appearing weak or vulnerable. However, continuing this conversation is crucial for fostering a supportive environment where athletes feel comfortable seeking help when needed. Open dialogue, education, and destigmatization efforts are vital steps in promoting mental health awareness in sports. The athletes who have used their platforms to speak out about personal struggles have been instrumental in normalizing conversations about mental health, particularly for young people who look up to athletes as role models.

We are looking forward to continuing the conversation at our Gala on May 2, 2024. Many prominent athletes who have already championed the connection between mental health and sports will be in attendance, and we are eager to celebrate them and foster a community of support. It’s not too late to get your ticket for the Gala – limited seats remain! Check out the event website to learn more about the Gala and purchase your ticket today.

Sources: American College of Sports Medicine; healthline.com; TIME Magazine.