Empowering Athletes for a Life Without Limits

When an athlete experiences physical injury like hamstring strain or jumper's knee, a speedy recovery is ensured by medical personnel. However, the same prioritization isn’t provided when an athlete is struggling mentally. This is despite mounting evidence that mental health affects performance just as much as physical injury.

Sports Medicine - Open says reshaping the discourse around mental health is the key to ensuring that athletes receive the intervention and support that they need. Cultural barriers such as stigma make this a tricky process, but fortunately a collective movement is underway. Below, we take a closer look at the discussion.

How does mental health impact your performance?

First, it's important to establish that athletes tend to experience comparable rates of mental ill-health. This includes depression, post-traumatic stress, sleep disorders, and most especially, anxiety.

Discussions on mental health often fail to realize how it goes hand-in-hand with physical performance due to the abnormal function of neurotransmitters in the brain. Psychiatrist Dr. Oberheu explains how the brain is capable of signaling physical disruptions in the body β€” leading to muscle tightening, shaking, and increased perspiration. This can also cause chronic fatigue and increased sensitivity to aches.

Otherwise, negative psychological factors can also lead to mental blocks and cause breaks in concentration. This can lead to poor performance, only amplifying the stress in a cycle, and even physical injuries to the athlete.

How is mental health being discussed?

While fitness can be an aid to good mental health, the unique set of stressors that athletes experience β€” from longer seasons of competition, identities defined by performance, and bodyweight expectations β€” are often downplayed.

In fact, many athletes are shown to have a negative attitude towards help-seeking for fear of consequences. It thus shocked many experts when University of Toronto researchers initiated a survey among Canadian athletes selected for the Tokyo Games last 2021, which revealed criteria for one or more mental disorders in 41% of respondents.

This reaction has been paralleled with athlete after athlete coming forward on mental health, such as headliner Simone Biles and her withdrawal from the Olympics, or Naomi Osaka and her pulling out from the French Open. Herein lies the importance of examining the portrayal of athletes in media, where reports focus entirely on physical wellness and ability.

This establishes an absolute correlation between the two, reducing athletes to numerical statistics instead of living beings. Hence, media narratives around sports injuries are sympathetic, but when athletes like Naomi Osaka cite mental health and anxiety as the reason for withdrawal from competitions, it's seen as β€œan excuse.”

What can be done to further the discussion?

Slowly, athletes are speaking up. Olympic athlete Raven Saunders credited mental health professionals at the Trials. Before her, there were long jumper Brittney Reese and 800-metre runner Raevyn Rogers, who also shouted out their sport psychologists. This shines the light on mental performance coaching and therapy connecting with success, enabling audiences to understand the correlation between the two.

This support within the community thus transcends into the upkeep of athletes. We especially see it in workouts that combine strength and cardio: CrossFit allows for adaptability and inclusivity, with tailored exercises for people of all ages, sizes, colour, and gender. This boosts confidence and mental wellness, creating an inner circle that understands the different struggles of being an athlete.

Yoga similarly boosts physical and mental wellness, and is fit for the training regimen of athletes in any field. See how competitive Canadian distance athlete Katherine Moore has been practicing yoga since 2002, and cites how the practice even prevents injuries on top of sharpening one’s mentality and ability to focus.

This goes to show that the strength of athletes is also shaped from within. Systemic change and legislative measures, from better access to professionals or medication, are necessary. Slowly, and with the right support, these methods will help athletes pave the way for collective change.

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