Opinion: Mental Health in Sports

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At the end of the day, it’s extremely important for athletes to remember that our sport is what we do. It’s not who we are. We have to find balance,” said Chanelle Price, 2014 Indoor World 800 meters champion.  For athletes, this balancing act has been a problem since the beginning of time.  Sadly, most athletes never find the groove life needs, and a lack thereof has a domino effect, leading to other issues. 

The conversation surrounding mental health within the multi billion-dollar sports industry will never be a pleasant one.  The industry rather the conversation be swept under the rug to protect their financial asset, which can ultimately cause athletes more damage.  Mental illnesses often stem from performance pressure.  The same pressure that most athletes have been carrying since they were student athletes.  It begins with performing well in their sport of choice and in the classroom.  They have the pressure of making the grade because if grades aren’t up to par, their athletic life is compromised.  Former student athlete, now high school physical education teacher, and basketball coach Brent Williams felt no pressure to make the grade in his day.  He attributes the required GPA of 2.3 to blame for below average testing scores, which is still the requirement.  “It’s not hard to get the required 2.3 GPA.”  He added, “there are programs in place for those deficiencies and for the athletes, but most athletes are lazy, and if taking the time out they can get higher than the required GPA”.  Academically many athletes suffer, because the attention the sport garners is not reciprocated academically, which results in low I.Q. scores that cause anxiety, depression, and insecurities.  Chasity L. Brown, who is a coordinator for the Department of Health Science at Lincoln University agrees the pressure is often self-inflicted, but what can one expect when you’re praised for your athletic skill that provides entertainment, rather your scholastic score?  Brown stated, “It’s a constant struggle for athletes to excel in the classroom and in their sport.  There is a lot of time taken away from being able to focus on academics because of practice, competition, and travel.”

The transition from student athlete to professional athlete is accompanied by pressure, with a layer of stress added to the equation. Many pro athletes impose pressures on themselves to maintain their legacies as champions.  No one wants to become a has-been star athlete.  Many feel the pressure to “make it” professionally and provide for their family.  One can debate these kinds of pressures haven’t allowed the student’s mind to develop at its own pace, and it has the potential to be classified as a “unique mental disorder” the same thing they’re trying to call “gaming disorder.”  Recently, the WHO (World Health Organization) added “gaming disorder” as a related health problem.     

Another problem most professional athletes face is financial illiteracy.  There isn’t any direct correlation, but for argumenta purposes; athletes who are thrust into the spotlight, with minimal education, and the bandwidth of a child can cause mental illnesses, or some sort of development issues.  According to an article published by the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, most ”lack common skills to effectively manage their personal finances”.  Through data collected the article also states, “the length of a professional athlete’s career doesn’t protect them against bankruptcy.”  So, they’re “entering into the sport already in debt.”  Financial illiteracy is another component that can attribute to an athlete’s mental illness, because it’s adding stress to an illness that’s already gone unaddressed.

Athletes possess an uncanny passion for their sport.  Many say they are willing to die for it.  They sacrifice their minds, bodies, and souls for the game and wouldn’t have it any other way.  They push themselves beyond the extent they should.  They bend over backwards for the sport and succumb to pressures major or minor all for the sole purpose of performing.  They develop mental issues, eating disorders, and subject themselves to substance abuse for the love of the sport.  The same sport that treats them like pawns.  Outside of entertaining sports fans, their feelings are often disregarded.  Encountering an injury that’s career threatening often leaves them feeling physically and emotionally abandoned by their fans, peers, support system and loves ones.  These athletes sacrifice their lives on the daily, all while self-medicating and hurting in silence.

For most athletes, mental health is an invisible competition they’re competing in, but want no one cheering them on.  The lack of education and awareness allows the stigma that having a mental issue is a sign of weakness.  To ensure improvement within the statistics and cases regarding mental health, perhaps an extended convalesce period should be added to the athlete’s season?  Brown also said, “It is very important for coaches and athletic directors to understand and provide extra resources for these athletes such as study sessions, tutors, and counseling services to the athletes.”  That’s where routine physiatrist visits would assist in preventing additional cases.

Metta World Peace formerly known as NBA player Ron Artest was known for his inappropriate behavior, but most notably for his on-court Malice at the Palace incident.  Metta later revealed he dealt with mental illness, and went publicly with the news by thanking his therapist after winning the NBA championship in 2010. “I definitely want to thank my doctor, Dr. Santee my physiatrist.  She really helped me relax a lot.  Thank you so much, it’s so difficult to play with so much commotion going on in the playoffs, but she helped me relax, I thank you so much.”  In May of 2019 Artest released a documentary titled Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story.  The film shines light on the often misunderstood athlete who managed to bounce back from a mental disorder. 

Athletes perform because they love what they do, but most coaches and organizations aren’t concerned about the athlete’s mental health as they are the athlete’s performance.  If directors and coaches are held accountable for the athlete’s health on and off the field, it’ll have the potential to combat the athletes who are struggling with mental health from showcasing their mysterious emotions in unpleasant ways.

When it comes to athletes and mental health, it should be viewed as an invisible competition, but not treated as one.   

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