Participating in sports offers many benefits: exercise, feel-good endorphins, camaraderie and a chance to build skills and self-esteem. This is true across all age groups, including teens in their “difficult” years. The American College of Sports Medicine points out, “Adolescent participation… is positively correlated with multiple indicators of physical health, decreased anger, positive developmental outcomes, increased sleep, and a more varied diet.”
But athletes also face challenges. Stress, injury and the athletic culture can take a toll on physical and mental health. And the very personality traits that help a person succeed athletically can contribute to mental health issues.
Common Stressors for Athletes
To participate in sports, athletes of any age give up a precious life commodity—time. Even six-year-olds who want to play T-ball or take gymnastics give up time with family and playmates. Student athletes must perform well in academics as well as sports, leaving less time for family and friends. Practices and workouts demand their dedication, and travel may require them to miss classes. A lack of control over their time can also add stress to their lives.
Team athletes have access to a built-in support system—their teammates and coaches. The team bubble can be extremely beneficial, but it may preclude athletes from socializing with “regular” people. And if anything goes wrong—if an athlete lets the team down or rubs teammates the wrong way—their bubble is less secure, and they have fewer people to turn to.
Athletes are visible figures in their communities, whether on a school campus or a national stage. The more visible they are, the less privacy they have. They may face continual judgment from fans and critics, both in person and in traditional and social media. If an athlete is struggling with mental health issues, being visible can compound symptoms. A “civilian” can get treatment in relative privacy, but an athlete may not.
Despite growing numbers of prominent athletes openly seeking treatment for mental health challenges, there is still a stigma about asking for help. Athletes are expected to be tough, power through and not reveal weakness, on field or off. This compounds stress and may prevent athletes from getting the help they need.
In a school year, nearly a third of college students receive help for mental health issues. But the American College of Sports Medicine reports that far fewer student athletes seek help: “Approximately 30% of women and 25% of men who are student-athletes report having anxiety, [but] only 10% of all college athletes with known mental health conditions seek care from a mental health professional.”
Mental Health Risks for Athletes
“Although participation in athletics has many benefits, the very nature of competition can provoke, augment, or expose specific psychological issues in athletes.”Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Chang, et al., 2020
With loss of time and restricted socialization, an athlete’s life can feel out of balance. But some risks associated with sports can be dangerous to their mental health.
Hazing and bullying. Hazing is generally a one- or limited-time event, something unpleasant the athlete is expected to do or tolerate to become part of the team. It’s estimated that 80% of NCAA college athletes undergo hazing; 42% of those said they were also hazed in high school. A quarter of high school athletes said their first incident of hazing occurred before the age of 13. Far from helping athletes feel accepted, hazing can make athletes feel uneasy and unsafe. Both hazing and bullying can result in anxiety, relationship problems, loss of confidence and self-esteem, aggression, substance use, and detrimental effects on energy, focus and sleep.
Sexual abuse and harassment. Estimates reveal that up to half of all athletes—at all ages and levels of participation—will experience sexual abuse, and up to 92% will experience sexual harassment. While peers are more likely to sexually harass fellow athletes, those in positions of power (coaches and staff) are overwhelmingly responsible for sexual abuse. Physical symptoms of victims include headaches, loss of energy and sleep disturbances. Sexual abuse also puts athletes at risk for various mental health disorders and substance abuse.
Injury. Among high school athletes, three in ten report an injury every week; nearly 60% report an injury over the course of a year. Athletes may feel isolated, unmotivated or angry when they can’t participate; they may experience changes in appetite and sleep. A review of research in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine reveals: “Injured athletes report a higher level of symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder compared with non-injured athletes.” Injuries represent loss of opportunity, confidence and social connections. A difficult injury can cause symptoms of PTSD, including fear and avoidance of reinjury. Athletes left to cope on their own with an injury may flounder or resort to self-medication.
The “Athlete Identity” and Mental Health
Athletes with a strong “athlete identity” base much of their purpose and sense of self-worth on their participation in sports. This can result in great performance outcomes. But too much of a good thing carries risk of overtraining or use of performance-enhancing drugs. The very personality traits that contribute to an athlete’s success in sports can also contribute to mental health issues. Perfectionism can spark anxiety. A tendency to take risks can be good for sports but may open the door to substance use disorders or hazing.
When someone with a strong athlete identity is injured or must leave sports for other reasons, the loss of identity can trigger anxiety and depression. Athletes may find it hard to cope with other aspects of their life.
Addressing Mental Health Challenges in Athletes
Athletes suffer from most mental health disorders at similar rates as non-athletes. But rates for OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) are up to three times higher in college athletes than the general student population, and eating disorders are more prevalent among athletes in sports where appearance is important. Studies also suggest that elite athletes have higher rates of anxiety, which has a detrimental effect on performance in all athletes—it hinders concentration, impacts sleep and increases muscle tension.
About 35% of elite and professional athletes suffer from mental health issues like eating disorders, depression, anxiety and/or burnout. Rates of depression are generally the same in college athletes and non-athletes; however, athletes in individual sports are more likely to develop symptoms of depression than athletes in team sports.
Athletes who participate in sports are often perceived as confident and competent, but they are not immune to psychological difficulties. If you or an athlete you’re close to needs help with mental health challenges, Best Day’s counselors are ready to assist with compassionate assessment and treatment options.
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