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Breaking Mental Health Stigmas in Elite Athletics

Mental and physical health challenges affect everyone, including professional, elite, and Olympic athletes. When four-time champion female tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the Roland-Garros French tennis competition due to depression in June 2021, the world was shocked. Pressure, media attention, and fines charged based on the tournament’s code of conduct caused Osaka to take a step back and prioritize her mental health. By doing so, she showed the world that athletes do not need to succumb to the pressures from the sporting world and can break mental health stigmas.

Mental health difficulties are far more common than some physical conditions. In fact, mental health conditions are more common than cancer, heart disease, and lung disease cases combined. Many mental health conditions often go undiagnosed, undermanaged, or ignored entirely. Having good mental health is crucial for athletes competing at high levels, and yet these athletes often live a lifestyle that increases risk factors for mental health challenges, such as intense training schedules, travel, high-profile competitions, and being away from their support network.

Younger athletes may face even more difficulties. Changes in competitive levels, environment, or coaches can be challenging transitions. Because these athletes are still developing both physically and mentally, it may be hard for parents or coaches to distinguish between normal adolescent mood swings and mental health conditions. While some changes are hormonally driven, adolescents, especially females, are at increased risk for anxiety and depression. Hormonal shifts combined with stressors such as peer pressure, pressure to perform at high competitive levels, and family conflict leave these athletics more vulnerable.

If athletes begin training at a very young age, as many high-level athletes do, they sometimes miss out on normal activities such as a regular school routine, after-school activities, and spending time with friends. Often high-level athletes are homeschooled around their training schedules and practice for extended hours. These factors increase the risk of mental health conditions due to pressure and stress experienced at such a young age. If the athlete participates in an individual sport, such as tennis, golf, or swimming, they may experience higher levels of stress because the pressure to perform falls entirely on them. They are not able to depend on the collective effort and support of their teammates.

Physical conditions can also lead to athletes suffering from mental health conditions. Elite athletes have higher incidences of substance abuse and eating disorders. A culture of extreme focus on physical appearance and fitness can be incredibly challenging. If an athlete suffers a serious physical injury, this can trigger both anxiety and depression. The mind-body relationship is a strong connection that is often ignored by medical professionals who instead focus on physical symptoms. Psychological pain following an injury can affect their confidence and ability to perform well long-term.

Osaka took a big leap in breaking mental health stigmas in athletics. Many athletes fear being judged as weak, or fear losing money and sponsorships. These are barriers to many athletes seeking out help for their mental health challenges. Coaches can play a role in providing support for their athletes that need mental health services. The sports community should continue to challenge stigmas about mental health in athletics to improve the wellbeing of athletes worldwide.

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