Why does it feel like now more than ever athletes are coming forward with their own stories of mental suffering in sport? Let’s take an objective look at what’s going on:
Athletic gear has become incredibly custom, training is smarter, and nutrition is honed for optimal recovery and muscle growth. If we time travelled just 20 years ago – 2005 – we wouldn’t have players like Serena Williams still competing in Grand Slam finals at the age of 39. We wouldn’t have Olympic swimmers like Dara Torres still winning medals at the age of 41. We wouldn’t have Professional Golfers like Phil Mickelson winning a PGA Championship at the age of 50. The incredible, shared knowledge around how to rest, train and compete and optimize that cycle has prolonged careers and contributed to the most competitive sports environment we’ve ever seen.
The intense level of competition leads to an almost nonexistent margin of error between winning and losing and thus the pressure on athletes has exponentially increased. Think about sports like golf or timed races at the Olympic games. A single golf putt could be the difference in winning $700,000 of prize money. A fraction of a second separates 1st place and 2nd place in sports like track & field and swimming. At the 1966 Olympic Games, the time that separated first from second in the women’s 100m freestyle was .40 seconds. The time that separated second place from third place was .90 seconds. Fast forward 50 years to the 2016 Rio Games. In the same event, first and second place tied to the exact millisecond (.01) to each earn a gold medal. The difference between the two first-place finishers and third place was .20 seconds. This trend for decreased margin of error in sports has become increasingly prominent with time, technology and knowledge. Losing by a barely noticeable fraction of a second or suffering a public injury that leads to retirement are more common occurrences in sport than ever before. As sport has advanced on almost every physical level to catapult athletes to unprecedented performances, we haven’t caught up on a mental health level to protect our headspace. The consequences of not catching up our mental standards to the standards of our physical priorities are cringeworthy and a disservice to the very participants that make up the sport in the first place.
The rise in the use of numbing substances adds to a suffering mind.
On the collegiate level, the pressure of high performance academics, athletics and demanding training schedules contributes to substance abuse and addiction problems, which unfortunately go hand-in-hand with mental health issues as co-occurring disorders. According to an alcohol and substance abuse study conducted by the NCAA, “30 percent [of current student-athletes] report experiencing blackouts, which are red flags for developing an alcohol addiction. In addition, more than 30 percent have done something they later regretted and more than 25 percent have been criticized for their drinking.” These are rather large percentages of the student-athlete population that abuse alcohol and other drugs. The college party scene enables athletes with the perfect numbing potions to relieve them of burdensome performance pressure and offer temporary states of freedom if they are feeling depression, anxiety or other stressful mental states.
On the professional level, take a look at the NFL. A large portion of NFL Players, 52% to be exact, admit use of prescription painkillers throughout their career, with over 70% claiming they misused those drugs. With pressure to perform, generate income via team contracts and extend the longevity of their careers, painkillers are an effective solution to numb. Painkillers, alcohol, marijuana or other drugs offer the perfectly unhealthy outlet to shut off your mind and escape. It may be the only time these players feel a sense of peace and calm. After players enter a post-sport life, about 15% of those that had misused painkillers continued to do so in retirement. The behavioral cycle of experiencing incredible stress and pressure followed by unhealthy coping mechanisms bleeds into the player’s non-athlete life and can add significant health issues while exacerbating depression and anxiety.