Professional athletes train 20-30 hours a week the whole year-round while eating healthy and facing the pressure for a great athletic performance. At the same time, student or collegiate-athletes train at least eight hours a week while keeping up with their academics. The life of an athlete is not easy: discipline, perseverance, hard work, passion, determination are only a few of an athlete’s values. 

With all the exercise, healthy living, clean eating, and strong personality, athletes are perceived as physically, emotionally, and mentally strong individuals. However, with all the pressure of career achievement, concerns on athletic performance, the fear of being injured, and for student-athletes to keep up with classwork and grades, there is a lot of pressure on the mental wellness of athletes. 

If you’re a student-athlete, an elite athlete, a coach, or an athlete’s family member, and you’re trying to search for answers on mental health concerns, this article can help to shed light. 

Why The Mental Health Issues Of Student-Athletes And Elite Athletes Matter

About 33% of the student or collegiate athletes experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. While 35% of elite athletes (players for Olympics or national sports events) experience stress, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health crisis. 

Athletes are looked upon as role models of their fans and peers. As athletes keep up with the facade of being strong and exemplary role models, they tend to hide what they really feel or what they go through. There are two apparent reasons an athlete wouldn’t seek help for their mental wellness: the stigma of being judged and the fear of being taken off in the team

But when an athlete’s emotional and mental health is not taken care of, it will reflect their game performance. The lack of concentration due to mental health issues can either result in losing the game or getting injured. Athletes trying to be in a certain weight category like boxers may develop eating disorders, which can greatly affect their physical health. Now you know why mental health is important for athletes? It affects almost all aspects of the athlete’s life. 

Why Are Student-Athletes Prone To Mental Health Issues?

Student-athletes in high school or college are prone to mental health issues for many reasons:

  • The pressure of having good grades and keeping up with deadlines at school. 
  • With the desire to stay physically fit (like cheerleaders), other student-athletes develop eating disorders. 
  • High school athletes work hard to have good grades and perform well with their respective sports with the hopes of qualifying for a full-ride college scholarship. 
  • Lack of sleep due to waking up early in the morning for training or staying up late at night to finish school works. The lack of sleep leads may because students to have depression or anxiety. 
  • An athlete suffering from a serious injury with the worries of not being able to play again may lead to depression.  
  • The pressure of not meeting the expectations of their coaches, parents, or school.
  • Due to busy schedules in training or practices, there may be a lack of social interaction from peers. 

Why Are Elite Athletes Prone To Mental Health Issues?

Elite athletes are highly vulnerable to mental health challenges. Elite athletes may experience many stressors. Professional athletes play sports as their career, and they make a living out of this, so the pressure is really on. Here are the reasons why elite athletes are prone to mental illness. 

  • Athletes experiencing problems keep their problems to themselves because of the stigma of seeking help for their mental health. There is the fear that it may affect their career. This worsens the problem and may lead to the development of symptoms of depression. 
  • The pressure of performing well and becoming a better athlete to maintain their career or to progress into the next level.
  • When the athlete is injured, there is the fear that he/she cannot come back to play, and it may affect their career. 
  • Lack of social relationships because of being too busy on the training and games. 
  • The fear of losing their job and facing financial instability. 

What Coaches, Sports Organizations And Families Can Do To Help With The Mental Health Of Athletes

For coaches, sports organizations, schools, or families, do offer support to the athletes. Other athletes will not openly admit to experiencing mental health issues. There must be awareness about mental health problems in coaches, sports organizations, schools, and families to approach this situation. How will you know if an athlete is experiencing struggles with their mental health? Know the signs of a mental health decline:

Signs Of A Mental Health Decline or Mental Illness:

  • Changes in eating patterns (may eat too much or eat less): You’ll know an athlete is eating lesser than usual when he/she doesn’t have the usual energy for training.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns: It can be in the form of oversleeping or lacking sleep. It can show in their performance during training or game.
  • Changes in their personal self-care: Are there changes in their hygiene? Is he/she unkempt as compared before? 
  • Changes in mood: Dramatic emotional changes, mood swings, extreme anger, or depressed feelings.
  • Social Withdrawal: Does he/she not socialize like before? Not joining the team for after-practice dinners, unlike before? Prefers to stay alone and appear aloof?
  • Changes in everyday functioning: Unable to cope with everyday tasks, like house chores, school works, or join family gatherings, which seems unlikely as used to before. 
  • Problems in concentration: Unable to concentrate well during practice or during the game, affecting their athletic performance.
  • Unusual behavior: Acting odd, appears to be sad and does not like doing activities once enjoyed before. 

If you see one of these signs to an athlete you know, try to step in. As a coach, parent or co-athlete, offer your support by talking to them. Your presence and availability to listen with empathy are more than enough. Sometimes, all we need is someone who will listen to us. Someone you can talk to without judgment. Athletes need that too. 

How Can Athletes Take Care Of Their Mental Health

Most athletes we know, elite or students, have that strong-willed and passionate character. But like most of us, when pushed to the limits, can have a breaking point. An advice for all elite and student-athletes: as you’re doing your best to be physically fit for a sports event, be mentally prepared as well by taking care of your mental health. Here is some advice to follow: 

Talk To A Friend 

Sometimes, all you need is a trusted friend you can talk to. Have you noticed that you feel better after you talk to a friend about a problem or your challenges? When you express your emotions and what’s bothering you, you are taking care of your mental health. Talk to a friend that sympathizes with you and listens to you without judgment. Talking to a friend can also help with your sense of belongingness, self-confidence and reduce anxiety. 

Give Time For Yourself

When was the last time that you gave time to yourself? Have you been busy with all the training and games? When was the last time you had a pamper day or just take time off? Sport Psychology suggests that even Olympic athletes take occasional rest days in between training, and so should you. For all elite athletes or student-athletes, give time for yourself to relax and do what makes you happy (other than training or playing sports). If you find it helpful to go on camping outdoors or gardening makes you happy, then do it. 

Socialize With Family Or Friends

Social relationships are important to mental health. The sense of belongingness by spending time with your friends and family has a big role in your mental health. Going out on coffee dates or having drinks is good for your mental health. It’s the perfect time to catch up, just laugh and let loose. Everybody needs to socialize for the development of healthy relationships. If you don’t spend enough time with your family, it can cause strains in your relationship; nobody wants that. 

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Are you getting stressed in between training and athletic games that you feel like freaking out? Practice mindfulness meditation as one of your mental health coping skills. Practicing mindfulness meditation with deep breathing exercises can help you increase concentration during games and is a great practice for better mental health. 

Final Thoughts

One of the best things you can do for better mental health is to speak with a counselor or therapist. A mental health professional can help you get an insight into what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling this way. If you’re from Kentucky or Ohio, you can avail the Telehealthcare Services of Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC). Schedule an appointment now through the KCC Direct Services.

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