The game of the mind

After Naomi Osaka opening up about her struggles with mental health, do we really understand the relationship between mental health and elite athletes?
The game of the mind
Mental health plays a very important role in an athlete's performanceThe Bridge Chronicle

With multiple sporting events happening around the world after a year of lull, these are very exciting times for all sports fans. While in one world, the knockout stage of the European Cup has started with exciting fixtures like England vs Germany and Italy vs Belgium which will surely be nail-biting encounters. In the US, the NBA conference finals are in full swing with young teams like the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks going toe-to-toe with tournament favourites like the Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks.

The sporting festivities for the year don’t end there. Other tournaments like The Championships at Wimbledon will start soon, which will see the return of maestros like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, meanwhile the Formula 1 season has never been more exciting with Lewis Hamilton’s top spot which is up for the taking. Last but not least, the world is awaiting the start of the biggest sporting event in the world, the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Sports are an integral part of life. It helps us feel part of a community; gives us a feeling of pride and honour. Sports give us identity and sometimes the illusion of control and mastery over nature. It teaches how to function in a team, how to deal with success and failure, how to accept the loss and keep moving ahead. And even though sports hold a special position in our lives, have we ever looked at it from the athlete or the player's perspective? As we enjoy our favourite sport from the comfort of our couches or cheers our favourite players in the stadium, do we have any idea about what these athletes are going through?

Mental health plays a very important role in an athlete's performance
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Especially in today’s times where all athletes need to live in ‘Bio-Bubbles’. They are away from their family and restricted in a room. As exhibited by many, these athletes are under the constant pressure of performing, winning and living up to expectations created by fans who are never satisfied. These things can take a toll on an individual’s physical and mental health, which can lead to several illnesses and disorders.

Mental Health Issues faced by Professional Athletes

Just like any other human, professional athletes suffer from mental health-related issues. In the last few years, we have seen a rise in the overall awareness of issues related to mental health. In the space of professional sports, however, the awareness regarding mental health issues is still very little.

About 5%-35% of elite athletes suffer from some sort of mental health illness

Problems Faced in Addressing Mental Health-related issues

The study published by Physiopedia also addresses why elite athletes may not take up interventions that will help overcome mental health-related problems. These reasons are lack of awareness and literacy about mental health and its impact on performance. The perception of seeking help is considered a sign of weakness, problematic ideas of masculinity and fears of being stigmatised restrict athletes to take professional health. The fear of being dropped from the team and not being allowed to compete also haunts the athletes. All these preconceptions straightjacket athletes to come out and talk about their issues, which may turn into life-threatening illnesses.

Athletes who came out and talked about their Mental Health Issues

Players, time and again, have come out and told the media and their fans about the ill effects of the pressure they face. While not in many words, players have been hinting at their struggles and their attempt at keeping themselves mentally healthy. While the most recent case was of the tennis player, Osaka… who said… “Hey everyone, this isn't a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” she began. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”

Serena Williams:

The 23-time grand slam winner and former world number one, Serena Williams has been very vocal about her struggles with mental health-related issues. Williams talked about her struggles with depression and anxiety and supported her decision. "I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it's like," Williams told reporters in a press conference. "I've been in those positions." In 2018, she also talked about her postpartum depression and its effects on her life through an Instagram post. She talks about feeling she wasn’t an exceptional mother and wasn’t doing enough for her daughter. Williams also threw light on the difficulty of managing time between work and family.

Mental health plays a very important role in an athlete's performance
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Serena Williams talks about Postpartum Depression in 2018
Serena Williams talks about Postpartum Depression in 2018The Bridge Chronicle

Harmanpreet Kaur:

In a 2019 interview, the Indian Women’s cricket team’s captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, talked about the importance of mental health as she requested the BCCI for a sports psychologist who could travel with the team and help the players. In the interview, she talked about the importance of mental health as part of the game. She felt it is important for every member of the team to have someone to express their feelings openly. This would invariably help in regulating stress and improving performances on the field.

Kevin Love:

The 2016 NBA champion and former All-star, Kevin Love, talked about his struggles with mental health problems and how he experienced his first panic attack in a 2018 article titled “Everyone is going through something”. Love talks about how it was just after halftime and the coach called a timeout and suddenly he felt his heart was racing. He couldn’t breathe properly. He felt his head was spinning, and he wasn’t feeling normal. He started freaking out and ran towards the locker room. Then after a few days, he realised he needs to take professional help with his mental health. In the article, Love also talks about the stigma surrounding mental health and the perception of people towards getting professional help. He addresses the fact that taking professional help is considered a sign of weakness, but addressing these issues is very important.

Kevin Love talks about the importance of mental health
Kevin Love talks about the importance of mental healthThe Bridge Chronicle

Abhinav Mukund:

The former India player, Abhinav Mukund in a 2019 article titled “It's ok to take a break, it's ok to speak up”, talked about his struggles with mental health. Mukund throws light on the time when he was left out of the Indian team and went to England to play club cricket where he was paid GBP 30. According to him, it was the lowest point in his cricketing career.

Mukund in a recent podcast reiterated the importance of mental health when he was talking about PK Dharma, a young Tamil Nadu player who committed suicide at 20 in 2012. He said, “With regards to suicide, I think, the awareness should be a lot more. But I am really sorry, I have to take a stance on this, toughening up statement is something that you might be able to do, but I won’t be able to. I understand to toughen up is a very easy thing to say, but it’s very relative. So, what means for you to toughen up might not be for me.” Mukund believes that in a country like India where cricket is so competitive, we need mental health professionals, especially at the junior level.

Abhinav Mukund opens up about mental health
Abhinav Mukund opens up about mental healthThe Bridge Chronicle
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Can the Authorities help?

The sporting authorities play a very important role in creating programmes catering to the mental health needs of the athletes. The authorities need to create literacy and awareness about mental health and related disorders in athletes, coaches and important members. Awareness and literacy will promote help-seeking behaviour, leading to early detection and prevention of mental health disorders and illnesses.

A research paper published in 2019 talks about how the authorities should create individually focused development programmes. These programmes meet specific needs and will ensure improved results. The employment of sports psychologists is crucial. They will be part of the support staff and will travel with the team to tournaments. The authorities should promote mental health screenings in tandem with physical health checks to have a detailed understanding of an individual’s condition.

For the Tokyo Olympics, the International Olympics Committee has created two programmes the IOC Safe Sport Action Plan and the Mental Health in Elite Athletes Toolkit. This will help in the physical and mental well-being of the athletes. Programmes like these are the beginning steps in the battle against mental health disorders. But the world needs several similar programmes to ensure the mental and physical well-being of athletes.

How the fans can help

The role of the fans in an athlete’s mental health is very important. If you ask any professional athlete, why do you play? His/her response will be for their fans. But on the flip side, these fans can hurt an athlete’s mental health.

Through social media, the gap between the fans and the athletes has reduced significantly. Anyone can directly call out an athlete using a platform like Twitter or Instagram with no restrictions. The speed of transfer of information on social media is so rapid that millions of tweets can bombard an athlete immediately after a poor performance. A Twitter thread uploaded by Florence Williams, a professional rugby player from Wales, talked about people trolling women’s sport and female athletes. Incidents like these can cause extreme anxiety and could even lead to depression.

So as fans, we can be slightly more empathetic towards our favourite athletes. We can use social media in a more considerate manner and we must remember that these athletes are normal people like you and me who are doing their jobs.

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Today, mental health is a blaring problem. Something that most are talking about and many are acknowledging. It, however, is still a touchy topic in the sports sector. For everyone to be a ‘sport’ for the game they like, fans, associations and players themselves must acknowledge and take necessary steps towards mentally healthier players. After all, a mentally and physically healthy player can perform much better and be more true to his/her fans!

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