Professional league athletes keep their bodies in shape year-round. Olympic athletes train for years to compete for a few weeks on the world stage. These individuals understand what it takes to keep their bodies in peak performance condition when it counts the most. They’re also expected to give interviews on demand and participate in grueling press conferences, often moments after an intense athletic performance.
A glaring truth has emerged in the last several years, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic: elite athletes don't always seek support and protection for their mental health. However, doing so may be as critical as their rigorous training sessions and diet regimens.
Despite growing attention on mental health issues among elite athletes, some obstacles are still present. The research behind the evaluation and implementation of mental health programs for this population is sparse. Also, the systems in place for managing mental health care are far less developed than those for physical health.
Here we’ll look more closely at the effects of burnout, some of the psychological stressors elite athletes face, and how some athletes are breaking down mental health stigma in the public eye.
Perfectionism and Burnout
Perfectionism is an issue many of us struggle with at times. It can have a positive impact when we strive to learn and improve ourselves in some way. But when it becomes connected with failure and self-criticism, a maladaptive perfectionist approach can be detrimental. It can also put an athlete at risk of burnout.
Athlete burnout is a combination of cognitive and emotional exhaustion, diminished value in their sport, and a decreased sense of accomplishment. Burnout and chronic depression share some risk factors such as negative thinking patterns, distorted thoughts, and feelings of resignation. Developing either burnout or depression can translate to poorer performance or inability to compete at all.
Burnout can be challenging to manage when it’s in full swing, especially if a demanding schedule or high levels of scrutiny compound the problem. Prevention approaches like mindfulness and increased social support may help.
Ongoing Stress of Interacting With the Press
Dealing with the press is part of the job for an elite athlete, but it’s also a constant source of stress for many. This relationship can feel intrusive for elite athletes. It’s one thing to do an off-season interview in a relaxed setting. It’s quite another to be peppered with questions moments after a devastating loss.
On May 26, 2021, tennis player Naomi Osaka took a stand for her mental health at the French Open by declining to attend press conferences. She cited concerns about the effect of intense questioning from the press. She felt it could stir up feelings of self-doubt during a tournament, threatening her mental wellbeing at a critical time. She also believed there was a general disregard for athletes’ mental health. Osaka’s statement drew significant attention, including supportive comments from Serena Williams.
Post-Performance Letdown and Lack of Purpose
Elite athletes often spend much more time training and preparing for athletic competition than actually competing. Off-season training and strategic planning can make or break a person's competitive advantage. When the big moment finally comes and goes, their sense of achievement may seem fleeting.
Post-competition letdown can present a significant threat to an elite athlete's wellbeing. Michael Phelps experienced a post-Olympics letdown in 2012, leading to a depressive episode and thoughts about suicide. He eventually opened up to loved ones and got the treatment he needed. Michael went against the grain and made his experience public, encouraging others with depression to be courageous and ask for help.
When an athlete steps out of the spotlight and tries to move on, they may feel a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose. Athletes and Olympians spend much of their time preparing for short but intense periods of activity, making it difficult to find a new purpose following their athletic career. When they have an injury or need to consider retirement, these athletes may struggle to understand what comes next.
If an athlete experiences psychological distress during their career, they may have a higher chance of distress in retirement. Also, retired athletes tended not to seek help for this distress.
The Genetic Component
A core part of how each of us feels and behaves can be attributed to genetics. Our unique genotypes are associated with genetic predispositions, or inclinations, that may influence how we respond to different situations. By understanding your genetic makeup - how you’re wired to feel and behave - you become more knowledgeable of yourself. That awareness of your genetic foundation can lead to conscious recognition of your feelings and actions, and give you the knowledge you need to address mental health and wellness concerns.
The Genomind Mental Health Map™ is a DNA-based assessment tool for mental health and wellness that provides an in-depth analysis of your genetic predispositions across the 7 Core Genetic Mental Health Capabilities™, including Stress & Anxiety, Mood, Social Behavior, and more. The Mental Health Map™ pairs actionable insights with personalized, science-backed recommendations to help you sustain and improve your mental wellbeing. No prescription is required.
Stigma Surrounding Mental Health in Elite Sports
One of the primary barriers preventing younger elite athletes from seeking mental health support is stigma. Depression is still stigmatized in the locker room. Elite athletes often see themselves through their achievements, and anything resembling failure can make them feel vulnerable or broken. Talking about emotional struggles can seem like admitting weakness, especially where the sporting culture values stoicism or high levels of control.
While it's seemingly becoming easier to be open with personal struggles in today’s society, the fear of rejection and ridicule remains, especially for elite athletes. Many elite athletes keep their mental health issues hidden in the shadows. But as more athletes put a spotlight on their struggles, they set an example and break down the stigma surrounding mental health in sports.
Kevin Love Talks About Panic
In November of 2017, NBA basketball player Kevin Love endured a panic attack in the locker room during a game. He wrote an article about his experience, breaking through the stigma. Some players felt that by coming forward, he’d lost his competitive edge. However, Love later heard from many people who were positively impacted by his story, affirming his decision to speak up.
Michael Phelps Opens Up About Depression
As mentioned earlier, Michael Phelps is another elite athlete who came forward about his emotional difficulties. His retirement from swimming in 2012 triggered a downward spiral into depression. He lost his sense of purpose and felt like he had no direction. Phelps went to treatment and shared his recovery story publicly, emphasizing that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
Simone Biles Acknowledges Stress
Most recently, Simone Biles withdrew from the women's gymnastics all-around final at the Tokyo Olympic Games to prioritize her mental health. After competing in the first rotation, Biles spoke candidly about her decision, citing overwhelming stress and exhaustion. Her withdrawal highlights the immense pressures of the Games and heightened circumstances of competing in the COVID-19 era.
Breaking Through the Stigma
Most of us aren't going to understand the intensity of being a professional or Olympic athlete. But we can relate to being under a lot of pressure at work, in school, and in other life situations. Watching high-profile athletes talk about their personal struggles can normalize the idea of opening up about mental wellness in our everyday lives.