Have you ever wondered what your life might look like had you become a professional athlete? Perhaps the idealistic image of playing sport for large sums of money in front of adoring fans sounds appealing? For many athletes, this may indeed be a reality, and the life of a professional sportsperson is, of course, an incredibly privileged profession. However, there is often more to this career than meets the eye.
One area that is typically overlooked in top-level sports is mental health. Despite commonly held assumptions, mental illness does not discriminate and individuals from all walks of life are affected, including athletes. Recently, a number of high-profile athletes have spoken publicly about their mental health, including England footballer Danny Rose, NBA Champion Kevin Love, and Rugby World Cup Winner Jonny Wilkinson.
Stories like that of Olympic gold medallist Kelly Holmes are worryingly common; she has spoken about how she went through periods of significant self-harm during her athletic career. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has described how he experienced suicidal thoughts following the London Olympics. How can this be? Why do athletes who, on the surface appear to have so much, struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders? It may be that a combination of factors including retirement, sport-specific environmental stressors, and non-adaptive thinking styles may all contribute.
To succeed at the highest level in sports, athletes devote themselves from a young age to their craft on a scale not often seen in other professions. This quest for perfection in a highly-scrutinised role can lead individuals to develop what is termed an ‘athlete identity’, where their sense of self-worth can become intimately wrapped up with their performance in sport. At the end of an athlete’s career, whereby they must transition into a new life, this becomes particularly troublesome.
In retirement, the athlete identity is in many ways lost, and athletes must come to grasp who it is they now are without their sport. Adding extra complexity, athletes typically retire at a young age (20s–30s) at a time when individuals in other professions may just be starting out. This difficulty can be exacerbated when athletes have had to retire against their wishes or earlier than hoped. However, it is not simply the transition phase that can be so problematic. As highlighted by the stories above, mental health concerns are also prevalent for athletes at the peak of their sporting careers.
Unfortunately, research focusing on understanding the mental health of active elite athletes is in short supply. This in part may be due to the methodological difficulties in recruiting elite population samples. Nevertheless, a recent systematic review from the University of Melbourne suggested that athletes experience a comparable risk for mental health disorders to the general public. This number can rise above that of the general public, however, following particular events during one’s career. For example, in addition to retirement, factors such as immense stress and pressure to perform, devastating injuries, time away from family, and being on the receiving end of intense public criticism can all take their toll on an athlete. Despite this, athletes are less likely to self-report psychological distress, within the sporting culture of ‘mental toughness’, whereby athletes are wary of stigma about exposing psychological vulnerability.
Other than these external triggers, could there be other more dispositional explanations for why athletes may be susceptible to psychological distress? Sporting environments are often associated with a culture of intense criticism and high standards. While coaches and parents may place immense pressures on an athlete, often it is the athlete themselves who is their own worst critic. And how does one deal with these highly critical and negative self-evaluations? Often, accepting them as truth leads to poorer outcomes in psychological health.
Another potentially more effective way an athlete could respond to these negative self-evaluations is through self-compassion, which is a way of responding to times of suffering and hardship that is characterised by increased self-kindness, understanding, and reduced self-judgement, allowing oneself to tackle over-identification with difficult thoughts. In many ways, self-compassion involves talking to oneself in just the way we might to a best friend and has been shown to be effective in improving emotional well-being and reducing psychopathology. In sports, this may be a more effective way to deal with obstacles as they arise.
Unfortunately, little work has investigated the role of self-compassion in sports. The studies conducted thus far suggest it may be beneficial to athletes by facilitating more adaptable positive responses to emotionally difficult sport-specific situations, such as suffering injury or losing a crucial match. In addition, athletes who are lower in self-compassionate traits have been shown to react with more negative, self-critical and emotional responses. However, athletes have reported apprehension around self-compassion; expressing concern that self-compassionate behaviours may lead to complacency and, by extension, lesser performances and reduced improvement. This delicate balance between maximising growth in sporting performance while maintaining positive mental health may well stand as one of the key goals of sports in the next few years.
Mental health needs to be taken seriously in sports. Bodies of work in both applied and research settings are now hoping to tackle this issue, both through facilitating mental health education to coaches, parents and athletes, and also by trialling more theoretically driven interventions. By creating more compassionate spaces for athletes to manage obstacles throughout their careers there may be a promise for improving overall psychological health, in addition to boosting performance in sports.
Courtney Walton, PhD holds provisional registration as a psychologist.