Athlete Mental Heath


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Dealing with stress and pressure before, during and after games

The mental health of athletes has often been a taboo subject, with anxiety, stress or depression seen as a sign of weakness in a competitor. But the world is changing, with a growing emphasis on health and wellbeing at work – and high-profile athletes using their influence to finally raise the subject in public.

Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps, who famously admitted he considered suicide after London 2012 Olympics, has since launched his own awareness campaign, saying: “We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So yes, it is OK not to be OK.”

Tennis player Naomi Osaka refused to undertake press conferences and withdrew from the French Open in 2021 citing mental health issues.

Even more significant was gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to quit the Olympics mid-way through a competition, and with a medal still possible, saying: “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health, and not jeopardise my health and wellbeing.”

The mental health of athletes is now a much bigger focus for sport, especially when you consider the pressures that competing in a major Games puts on those who take part.

In Tokyo, the IOC provided psychologists and psychiatrists in the Olympic village and established a ‘Mentally Fit Helpline’ to provide confidential support services before, during and after for three months after the Games.

Event organisers are having to think more carefully about how they support competitors, just as employers across other sectors do.

The IOC’s helpline was offered in more than 70 languages, providing clinical support, short-term counselling, practical support, and guidance.

At the Birmingham Commonwealth Games there is a desire to leave a health and wellbeing legacy for the wider public as well as looking after athletes – and it promotes mental health first aid as being as important as physical first aid.

Mental health awareness training is being provided for Games volunteers, whilst construction workers were also supported.

When do athletes suffer?

Mental ill health can strike at any time, and athletes are no different. The intense pressure to succeed can be a catalyst, as can injury.

Tennis player Emma Raducanu’s experience at Wimbledon last year shows issues can flare up during a tournament, too. She suffered breathing difficulties similar to a panic attack during a last-16 match and had to retire.

According to research from 2021, 24% of Olympic and Paralympic athletes also reported experiencing high or very high psychological distress after the Games.

Lack of success is the reason most often cited – after all less than 10% of athletes win medals. But pressure from sporting bodies, families and the public can take its toll – and sometimes simply the sheer ‘come down’ from a tournament is damaging.

Some athletes who have won medals report feeling depressed when they get home. This is sometimes known as ‘post-Olympic dark period.

It shows that health and wellbeing measures put in place by clubs, sporting bodies and event organisers should extend beyond the end of competition.

How many are suffering?

A study in 2019 suggested that 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may also manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression.

One in four people in the UK will be affected by mental illness in any year, the most common being depression and anxiety, according to mental health charity Mind. So, it should come as no surprise that professional sportspeople will face these issues too.

Footballer Clarke Carlisle, an ambassador for Mind, said: “There is a great appetite to address mental health issues within sport and things are improving, but the support for athletes is nowhere near adequate.”

Key learnings for clubs, associations and event organisers

Mind commissioned research into the issue and found a range of key triggers and areas of concern in the sporting world.

These included the exit route from professional sport for young athletes who don’t make it, retirement and struggling in silence. British swimmer Rebecca Adlington recent revealed her mental struggles after retirement, for instance, and spoke about dealing with a loss of identity.

It also provided some recommendations:

  • Coaches and managers need to understand the value of mental health and wellbeing – and be engaged in support for athletes. Education coaches can be valuable.
  • Employers should proactively support the mental health and wellbeing of athletes and support staff, mitigating the fast-changing and uncertain aspects of a unique workplace
  • A pan-support health network for elite support and a sharing of good practice would be valuable

What support is available for athletes?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution because all sports have unique needs. However, there are many places to go for help. Employers can offer a health and wellbeing programme through their employee benefits, for instance. This is an area in which Howden has a great deal of expertise, not just in the UK but globally.

Some of the charities offering support include:

Infoline: 0300 123 3393 Email: [email protected]
Address: Mind Infoline, PO Box 75225, London, E15 9FS
Telephone: 116 123 (24 hours a day, free to call) Email: [email protected]
Sporting Minds
Telephone: 0333 3355994
Website: sportingmindsuk-support/

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