Mental health has been heavily stigmatized for many years, especially in the sports world. Athletes are people too, but taking a step back to look after their mental well-being isn’t viewed the same way an athlete stepping back for a physical injury is. While physical injuries can be seen and are understood to not ignore, mental health is often brushed aside because it’s an invisible illness.
The misconception that athletes have to be tough often forces them to push their mental and emotional well-being aside so they’re not seen as anything less than that—if an athlete is tough, they must be able to handle things on their own. Sports psychologist Dr. Matthew Sacco notes that the stigma against mental health influences this especially. “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.”
This mindset makes the stigma worse and only leads to bigger problems as time goes on.
Sports cultivate a unique type of stress due to the culture surrounding it. Perfectionism becomes a necessary mindset both on and off the field while locker rooms are aggressive environments that athletes can’t show any weakness in, lest they want to be perceived as prey. The expectations of fans weigh heavily on an athlete’s shoulders as well—all of this and more contribute to the feeling that, no matter how well they play, they will never do well enough.
Athletes become permanently unsatisfied with their performance and stress over doing better and better even when they’re at their best. The higher they rise in the level of competition, the more these stressors impact their mental health. Depending on the person, they can become more pronounced, and untreated mental health can have a negative impact on an athlete’s performance as a result.
Untreated mental health can lead to distraction at its most basic level—distraction that can lead to serious injury on the field. The mind becomes filled with other things other than the game, and these distractions become more intense the higher the stakes become. Sometimes it just reflects on how an athlete scores or performs; other times, it can be outright dangerous if an athlete cannot focus and lead to serious injury.
Thankfully, the mental health stigma is being fought against more and more. Renowned athletes are stepping up and speaking about their mental health journeys to break down the stigma and let their fellow athletes know that they aren’t alone. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, spoke out about going to a rehabilitation clinic for depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. Record-breaking UFC and WWE fighter Ronda Rousey admitted to having thoughts of suicide after losing her UFC title in 2015.
Professionals want to let others know that this isn’t uncommon and that being mentally unwell doesn’t make a person weak or not enough. They are leading by example and building a culture where it’s okay to speak about the mental health aspect of competition.
Though there’s still a long way to go, the stigma against mental health in sports is slowly breaking. By being aware of what leads to mental health issues and where to get help, the industry could soon reach a place where there’s very little stigma, if none at all.