“It’s easy to overlook on the outside because all [the fans and media] see is players going out there and play in front of the big crowds, thinking how good a life they must have, but it’s extremely tough. You spend a lot of time in a hotel by yourself, away from your family, it is a tough time. There’s a lot of travel, a lot of time away from family. As much as people want to see more and more cricket, it does take a toll on players.”
These are the words of Australia’s star all-rounder Glenn Maxwell, who is 2019, decided to take a break from cricket, citing mental health issues. This is not an isolated case in professional sports. Big names in cricket including Virat Kohli, Marcus Trescothick, Sarah Taylor, and Praveen Kumar are some of the few who spoke about their mental health issues.
The list continues with other sports as well. Elite sportspersons like Serena Williams(Tennis), Michael Phelps(Swimming), Ronda Rousey(MMA Wrestler), Gianluigi Buffon (Footballer), Oscar de la Haye(Boxer) were all vocal about their struggles with mental health issues. The fact that they dared to open up in spite of the prevailing stigma associated with mental illness is commendable. But that said, it highlights how mental health issues are a serious crisis in general and more specifically in professional sports.
A recent review (Souter, 2018) draws eight types of mental health issues faced by athletes. According to Souter, these issues aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather intricately interlinked and interdependent. The primary factor that Souter describes is injury and associated distress. It has been found in multiple studies that any kind of physical injury in sport is associated with a higher risk for mental health problems including anxiety and depression. A possible explanation is distress associated with the impairments an injury can bring in performance.
Anxiety and Depression are other major mental health issues faced by professional sportspersons. Anxiety can stem from the excessive need to deliver the best and depression often ensues an inability to do so. The catch lies in internalizing these external events concerning performance. This happens due to the enmeshment of performance and self-esteem of professionals.
Substance abuse is another major issue. This issue is characterized by its pervasiveness across the sports community. The real dilemma with substance abuse is that the diagnosis might often be a manifestation of underlying issues such as depression and anxiety. Diagnostic criteria such as APA’s DSM IV-TR has been criticized for its inherent gender bias. Kessler(2000) notes how women tend to have more diagnoses with the majority of mental health problems while men tend to be diagnosed more with substance abuse and psychosis.
This points to the fact that DSM criteria need to include more etiological information into its diagnoses. This loophole in diagnostic criteria affects the diagnoses among sportspersons who are mostly men, which results in superficial labeling while overlooking real issues. Such things are to be taken into consideration and more research is required to improve the state of affairs with respect to this.
Other major issues include body image issues, overtraining and eating disorders. Though the reported diagnoses may be relatively less in number, the issues it raises are relevant. Apart from physical strength, endurance and performance, glamour has infiltrated into the sports field as many sportspersons are also brand ambassadors and celebrities. The visibility of social media is an additional burden to the existing scrutiny of public persona. A prevailing stereotype regarding mental toughness in sports is one of the factors that exacerbate the silence around mental health crisis in sports.
Sportspersons are generally said to be suffering from issues concerning performance expectations and interpersonal issues. An important area of focus would be to try and improve the self-awareness of the athletes and facilitate personal growth. It is important to divorce ourselves from conditions of worth to foster personal growth and self-actualization (Maslow). Paddy Upton, Mental conditioning coach, in a similar vein, points out that “The key is to help a player understand that who they are as a person and what they do on the ground are two different things. They need to separate the results – good or bad – from their personal lives.”
One of the major interventions required here is to incorporate psychological care and mental health services for sportspersons. Though there are services such as mental condition coaches and associations and groups like Professional Cricket association that offers support, the resources seem inadequate. Along the lines of constant urge to improve psychological services, we need to invite the attention of sportspersons, coaches, authority figures as well as of the general public towards focusing on mental health.