Being an athlete is not without its challenges. On one shoe you’re a modern-day hero, pushing past obstacles on your quest to your next victory. The other however, you’re human with human limitations and challenges. Being human you hurt too, you feel and face everything life throws at you like everyone else. Now, it’s fairly easy to diagnose and treat physical injuries because they can be seen. Things are a bit different though when it comes to issues about mental health. Read on to find out everything you need to know about individual or team sports and mental health.
How Are Mental Health And Sports Related?
The modern world is constantly evolving, resulting in dynamic cultural changes. These changes can significantly affect the mental and emotional state of athletes. How? Let’s find out.
It’s no secret that the pressure linked to an average athlete’s daily routine can be intense.
The schedules, training, competitions, off-field obligations can be overwhelming, thus eliciting significant emotional responses. The amount of time and effort put into honing these skills can lead to imbalances in other aspects of our lives that are just as important.
These environmental and developmental influences are responsible for shaping motor, emotional and social aspects of your brain. Additionally, your eating patterns, interpersonal relationships and impulse control could also be affected.
Signs Of Mental Health Changes In Athletes
The key to controlling and remediating mental health issues is catching them early.
You see, most athletes will not actively seek help with their mental health when they need it. Instead, third parties like a coach or a parent can notice some changes, effectively encouraging them to talk about it.
- Low energy
- Sleeping problems
- Changes in eating patterns
Now you usually can’t diagnose some struggling depression through conventional means like an x-ray for a broken bone. It’s the little side issues that you should pay attention to. This is usually because it may be connected to a whole set of deeper matters.
So what exactly are the health implications of the mental wellbeing of athletes? Does it affect performance, or does it go deeper? Keep reading to find out.
Health Implications Of Mental Wellbeing Among Athletes
If not addressed, the mental wellbeing of sportsmen may adversely affect their overall health. Some of the known issues attributed to athletes mental health include:
This is one of the most prevalent conditions among athletes. It usually manifests itself in several ways including (7):
- Panic disorders
- Performance anxiety
- Phobic anxiety after injury
Though uncommon, it’s not unusual to find cases of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety among athletes (7).
General anxiety disorders present themselves with worrying too much alongside apprehension that can get out of hand. Obsessive-compulsive disorders, however, are characterized by thoughts, urges and intrusive ideas with ritualized behaviors concerning an activity (7).
Performance anxiety is often associated with excessive anticipation about a specific event that often becomes overwhelming. This in turn leads to panic attacks characterized by symptoms like (7):
- Shortness of breath
- Shakiness and sweating that often surface rapidly
- Racing heart
This is something that affects both sexes. However, it’s fairly common among female athletes and sports that lower body weight favors performance or weight is classed. The activities include (7):
- Cross-country and distance running
The classic features in females include amenorrhea, impared eating and osteoporosis (7).
Full symptoms usually show as the disorder progresses but as the condition worsens, more impairment occurs. These eating disorders can ultimately lead to decreased energy levels and performance among athletes (7).
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Body Dysmorphic Disorders
Muscle dysmorphia is an unhealthy preoccupation with mirror checking, muscularity and dieting. It is most common in sports that usually emphasize on physical size and physique.
Adjustment disorders have also been observed in some sportsmen. It’s usually characterized by behavioral responses to stressful situations that are beyond an athlete’s ability to adapt. The most observed emotions include (7):
All this can in turn lead to behaviors like (7):
- Social isolation
- Poor performance
- Substance use
- Relationship conflicts
Do you ever wonder how sports injuries and mental health are connected? Perhaps this can help answer that question.
Psychosomatic illness presents itself as prolonged recovery or frequent injuries, performance problems and pain without supporting evidence (7). The symptoms more often than not are just manifestations of emotional issues and are most prevalent in collision sports.
Athletes with this pain are more susceptible to depression, substance abuse,post-traumatic stress disorders and adjustment reactions. It’s also important to note that serious injuries which lead to chronic functional impairment can manifest as a psychosomatic condition (7).
In addition to all that, pain tends to present a unique challenge to the modern day athlete. This is sometimes due to the pressure to continue playing through the pain to maintain your position or standing in the team. Finally, injury can make athletes experience a distinct loss of identity.
Substance Use Disorders
Substance use among sportsmen is not similar to that of the general population. They most commonly use (7):
- Performance enhancers
Alcohol and drug abuse is most common in male athletes and can lead to severe consequences like (7):
- Academic problems
- Driving under the influence
- Sexual abuse
Alcohol and drug abuse in most cases occur simultaneously with mental health problems. Now since alcohol is relatively hard to detect on a drug screen, its effect usually manifests as performance decline (7).
Stimulant use is increasingly becoming a problem among athletes across the divides. This is especially since it’s used for non-medical reasons. Opiate use on the other hand, is observed after sportsmen with medical issues have them resolved (7).
Impulse Control Problems
Are you noticing an erratic shift in your behavior or performance? Chances are you have impulse control problems. Sometimes this issue can exhibit itself as fighting, aggression or even risky sexual behaviors (7).
Stigma, Headstrong Mental Health And Sports
The importance of mental health can never be overemphasized. However, when it comes to sports, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding this issue.
See, whenever you’re physically injured as an athlete, there’s a team of health care professionals who ensure a speedy and healthy recovery. The same kind of effort should also be seen when a sportsperson suffers from mental health problems.
While it’s true that sport psychology has been gaining ground in recent years, the stigma around it is still very predominant. This is because there’s an increasing emphasis on being physically and mentally fit in the world of sport. The latter can then lead to a culture of suffering and self-isolation.
That said, you should always remember that seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Instead it shows strength, character, courage and resilience. Here are some tips on how you can cope with stress as an athlete:
How To Cope With Stress In The World Of Sports
Being resilient is crucial in sports. You need to know how to use a range of psychological strategies and skills in managing the daily pressures and stressors.
Below are some strategies and tips to help you navigate the murky world of sports:
Introduce Some Change And Variety In Your Routine
This will help you reduce monotony, burnout, and boredom while maintaining excitement. Actions like changing your schedule or training venues should do the trick.
Make Your Goals And Expectations Flexible
Be sure to constantly revise them in a bid of better adapting to any challenges and changes that may occur. Focus on enjoying the moment and the process and relieve yourself of the constant pressure of winning. In short, just have fun and enjoy yourself!
Be Confident In Yourself
Developing confidence in yourself is just as important. Ensure that you’re always aware of your strengths and resourcefulness. This can go a long way in increasing your self-confidence and problem solving skills.
Resting and recovering is important in any physical activity. It will leave you energetic, freshened up and ready to face the next challenge thrown your way.
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Create Healthy And Supportive Relationships
Sometimes all it takes to pull you through a difficult situation is some motivation from people closest to you. That being said, always mold healthy, supportive relationships with your friends, family and most especially teammates.
Set Realistic Goals
Developing unrealistic goals that cannot be achieved can be really stressful. As such, ensure the goals you come up with are within your sphere of influence and ones that you can achieve. This applies to both long term and short term goals.
Pay Attention To Your Needs
Always listen to your body. Avoid overtraining and don’t push yourself over your limits. Doing that will turn out to be counterproductive in the long run and end up affecting your physical and mental health (8).
That being said, there are some things you should do to get in the right mental state when participating in events. We look at that next.
Before The Competition
Practice visualization. It helps to focus on your goals then visualizing yourself going through the process to achieve them.
Also, remember it’s not only okay to accept any feelings of anxiety, but it’s also helpful to do so. Normalize the physical symptoms that come with it, then remind yourself of your strengths and positives, and that those will remain no matter the outcome.
Finally, don’t measure your self worth based on the outcome. Wrap it all up by doing a nice warm up, eating a healthy meal, engaging in positive self-talk and allowing yourself enough time to get ready.
During The Competition
It’s all about the moment. The activity you’re doing at that point. Just focus on your breathing, do not second guess yourself and keep thinking about all the positives.
After The Competition
This is probably the most vital stage in any sporting event. It’s at this point that you either make or break your mental state as an athlete.
First off, identify all the things you did well, the feats you’ve accomplished and all your strengths throughout the event.
Next, look at the things you could improve on in the future, however, only focus on what you can control. Reduce the tendency of fixating on things you had little or no control over.
Finally, enjoy the fact that the event is over and that your body needs to rest and recover. You pulled through the whole competition, focus on that and celebrate your hard work. Take part in some activities you weren’t able to during your intense training and preparation periods.
Now that the competition is over, focus on your present situation by setting a personalized daily structure. Set aside some time to relax, and for some leisure and meaningful activities. Most importantly, spend some quality time with your friends and family.
Are Sports Good For Mental Health?
You’re probably now asking yourself what exactly is the link between sports and mental health activity. Is the situation as grim as it sounds? Short answer, no.
Engaging in sporting activities do come with lots of benefits for your mental health if done properly. Some of them include:
Playing Sports Can Improve Concentration
Working out frequently improves your mental skills like learning, critical thinking and concentration abilities. In addition to that, performing physical activities like playing sports reduces the risk of cognitive and neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s (10).
Playing Sports Can Improve Sleep Quality
Do you ever notice how easily you fall asleep after a good workout session or a sports game? It’s amazing, right?
Whenever you work out or play some sports, it’s only natural to get fatigued. This will help you fall asleep faster while deepening your sleep as well.
However, take care not to play too close to your bedtime. This can keep you awake and energized, interfering with your sleep pattern.
Playing Sports Can Boost Your Confidence
Organized sports is all about creating, working toward and accomplishing your goals. All this can be extremely rewarding and empowering at the end of the day.
Your goals can be anything ranging from winning the game or simply having fun and enjoying the game. Whatever your case is, these team or individual goals provide a heightened feeling of confidence and self worth.
Playing Sports Can Improve Mood
Any form of physical activity triggers the production of endorphins which are basically your feel good hormones (4). Generally they make you feel happier and relaxed. The bonus? It doesn’t have to be an intense session. You just need to get on your feet, increase your heart rate and have fun.
Playing Sports Can Reduce Stress And Feelings Of Depression
Yes, when done the right way sports reduces stress and feelings of depression. Recent data shows that about 75% to 90% of doctor visits are stress-related illnesses (1).
Exercising significantly reduces levels of cortisol which are stress hormones while stimulating production of endorphins. This combination is perfect for reducing the risk of depression and stress related issues.
Studies have shown that 20 to 30 minutes of daily exercise can make people feel calmer. This state of calmness can continue for several hours after exercising (4). Another study showed that it can be as effective as standard antidepressants, with even modest amounts improving depression (5).
Playing Sports Provide An Avenue For Socialization
Playing sports will give you the perfect opportunity for social interactions. You’ll get to spend time and bond with your old friends and even meet new ones!
In addition to that, studies have shown that increased socialization can improve your mood and reduce stress (9). So stop procrastinating about tackling your favorite sport or trying out a new one. You’ll eventually reap the several health benefits associated with it and have some fun while at it.
Playing Sports Can Help You Fight Addictions
Yes, you read that right. In fact, several studies have supported this claim.
For instance, a study on Norwegian teenagers found that teenagers playing team sports were less likely to use cannabis and smoke cigarettes as adults (3). Korean researchers have also been vocal in encouraging the use of sports to help teens combat internet addiction.
Playing Sports Is Good For Your Long-Term Mental Health
Participating in organized team sports can be good for your mental health in the long run.
Some research studied 9,688 children with bad childhood experiences like emotional neglect or physical and sexual abuse. It was discovered that the group who took part in team sports had better mental health when they were adults (2).
The Bottom Line
Taking part in sports can be really great for your overall health. However, it is not without its own risks. There’s always the possibility of physical injuries and in some cases, your mental wellbeing can also be affected.
You should, however, remember that it’s okay to seek help, to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Self isolation will only make things worse in the long run. It’s about time you took that first step, don’t you think?
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- America’s #1 Health Problem (n.d., stress.org)
- Association of Team Sports Participation With Long-term Mental Health Outcomes Among Individuals Exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (2019, pubmed.gov)
- Does sports participation during adolescence prevent later alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use? (2009, pubmed.gov)
- Exercising to relax (2020, harvard.edu)
- Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression? (2012, pubmed.gov)
- Mental Health Issues and Psychological Factors in Athletes: Detection, Management, Effect on Performance, and Prevention: American Medical Society for Sports Medicine Position Statement (2020, lww.com)
- Mind, Body, and Sport: The Psychiatrist Perspective (n.d., ncaa.org)
- Overtraining and Overuse Injuries causes Burnout in a Young Athlete (2017, samford.edu)
- Social Support and Resilience to Stress (2007, nih.gov)
- The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence and recommendations (2011, pubmed.gov)