Mental Health And Sports


Throwing light on the challenges and anxieties sports persons go through.

The mental health awareness month in May 2018 saw some large sports personalities open up about their mental health struggles over the course of their career. Sports giants like Olympic Gold-medallist swimmer- Micheal Phelps, NBA legend- Jerry West, NFL player- Brandon Marshall have shared their stories and have thus started the slow and steady process of destigmatizing mental illness in sports.

Behind the success and stardom of successful players is a brutal wave of stressors including competition, criticism, rivalry, fear of injury, expectations and fear of failure. Retirement is also a cause of mental health issues among players. The news of Australian rugby player Wallaby Dan Vickerman shows that the period of transition from playing to retirement and the phase of retirement itself can be extremely distressing for the players who have most often than not had a successful, highly achieving career. This competitive and stressful environment affects their performance which in turn affects their mental health. It’s a vicious cycle that most players face but rarely talk about. Apart from the hesitance of talking about mental health, the battle fighting for destigmatising mental illness in sports is all the more challenging in India due to the lack of a sporting culture, fewer facilities for sports, low budget allocations and lack of recognition for various sports in the country.

One of the key factors that keep players from seeking help is the stigma and the fear of losing playtime. Fear and anticipation of the media and social response also affects their help-seeking behaviour. The way the media portrays the struggles could have profound effects on the career and can further demotivate one to seek help or speak out about their issues. The most prominent example is that of golf star- Tiger Woods who did not speak about his sex addiction since his marriage, and ultimately had his public image and career affected. These negative consequences of appearing weak seem to outweigh the benefits of seeking help. According to sports psychologist Karen Nimmo, physical injuries have a certainty, and the player is well cared for but the uncertainty that comes with mental injuries leaves a player with less attention and care than they deserve. In a field where strength is a primary predictor of success, it is difficult to imagine a player struggling with mental health issues. According to the All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka, it is the perception of mental illness as a weakness that often leads to players pushing their concerns under the carpet. The main aim is to get the players to understand that talking about their vulnerabilities is a matter of strength rather than weakness.

Source: Sidney Rae on Unsplash

On one hand, the circumstances of competitive sports can add to the stressors in a player’s life and on the other hand, sports as an activity can help as a stress buster for many. Apart from the physical benefits of sports, an important reason why schools offer sports and physical training is that it helps build various aspects of one’s personality such as teamwork, leadership, discipline, self-improvement, development of self-esteem to begin with. A study has shown that rigorous physical activity is associated with reduction in depressive symptoms, anxiety and body image issues in adolescents. Active participation in sports and physical activities leads to the release of endorphins, thus giving one a sense of ‘high’ or ‘euphoria’. Sports can thus also work as a mood regulator. Several studies explain the positive effects of sports on various aspects of life and yet, those most involved in sports don’t seem to benefit the most out of it. This implies that there is something amiss in the field and practice of sports than the activity itself. The question is, what can we do to make things better in this regard?

Here are some suggestions about how the field of competitive sports can be improved so as to help one in achieving one’s full potential, holistically:

  • Provisions need to made to include mental healthcare for the players along with physical healthcare.
  • Sensitivity on part of the media and the public following the players can encourage players to freely seek help.
  • Provisions in team management for a therapist or sports psychologist will be an added advantage.
  • Post-match group or individual sessions to assess the mental health of the players is advisable as sharing helps alleviate stress.
  • Introducing mental health training right from the beginning as a preventive measure would go a long way in ensuring the mental well-being of sportspeople.

Feature Image Credit: Ben-o-Sullivan on Unsplash


Vini Doshi is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.



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