Shifting the game: acknowledging mental health breaks for athletes

By Shelly Guni

Nobody challenges an athlete’s decision to take time off after suffering a broken wrist or injured ankle. Those injuries are plainly visible, and it is obvious that they must not be disregarded.

What happens, though, when athletes take a break to attend to their mental health requirements?
Although a diagnosis of depression or anxiety cannot be shown on an X-ray or MRI, they can be just as restricting or incapacitating as a physical injury. However, these problems are much too frequently disregarded in the sake of grit.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as, “. . . the foundation for the well-being and effective functioning of individuals. It is more than the absence of a mental disorder; it is the ability to think, learn, and understand one’s emotions and the reactions of others.

Mental health is a state of balance, both within and with the environment. Physical, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual and other interrelated factors participate in producing this balance. There are inseparable links between mental and physical health.”

“In the public eye, athletes frequently present a larger-than-life presence. They are viewed as contenders who heroically overcome difficulties and misfortune in the quest for success.

“Before competitions, there may be intense anxiety due to the pressure to perform.
“This is also known as performance anxiety or sports anxiety. This worry could appear after a player has healed from an injury and is getting ready to resume playing.

‘‘It might also occur before a big game,” Sports psychologist and athlete Blessed Chinyangare told Review & Mail.

The signs of a panic attack in an athlete with performance anxiety include shortness of breath, nervousness, a rapid heartbeat, and perspiration.

Student athletes run the same risk of acquiring mood disorders like depression as other students do.
“Additionally, they run the risk of developing eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and addiction problems.

“Athletes who sustain injuries are especially prone to depression, PTSD, and substance abuse issues during and after recovery.

“In order to be there for their team and maintain their position, they could feel pressured to heal as quickly as possible and push through the pain. For students reliant on a sports-related scholarship to attend their college or institution, missing certain games might be especially terrifying,” he added.
But they’re something else, too: “Athletes are people,” says Chinyangare.

“As such, they’re going to wrestle with the same complex issues as the rest of us. They’re not immune to the stresses of life.

“Asking for help, though, can carry a stigma for athletes, he said before adding that: “Because if you’re tough, there’s a misconception that you should be able to just do it yourself. You don’t have to get help.”
And that idea, he says, only creates bigger problems as time goes by.

The stress of athletics and competition
“Despite the fact that stress is not exclusive to athletics, the distinct culture of sports can act as a pressure cooker, the hostile climate in locker rooms frequently preys on any feeling of weakness,” says Chinyangare.

“Add to that the perfectionist outlook of many rivals.

“Although it’s a strong motivation, it can also leave athletes feeling unfulfilled, regardless of how well they perform. In this boiling pot, finding a healthy balance can be challenging.

“As you increase the degree of competition, some of these elements become more important, and depending on the individual, they may become slightly more obvious.”

Courage and Sports

Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but staying one step ahead of it. Because that’s where you find a stronger version of yourself.

Many coaches and athletes feel that confidence is the key to excellent performances.
While confidence is certainly developed in sport, we should aim to teach our athletes courage. There is a large amount of fear involved with sport – fear of failure, of injury, of embarrassment.

Learning to be courageous and take risks is a life skill. Often, we think that confidence comes from favourable comparisons with others but this mindset only perpetuates negative qualities such as arrogance. Confidence is about self-belief and knowing what you do well, on your own accord.
It takes courage to go for your dreams.

It takes courage to get back up, when you have been knocked down. It takes courage to go outside your comfort zone, to get better. It takes courage to win.

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