Athletes at every level may perform at a high level in their sports, but that skill and persistence can sometimes mask underlying mental health issues.
For example, when US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the 2020 (2021) Olympics gymnastics all-around final and team final in Tokyo, she explained that she withdrew over concerns for her own mental health. Her psychological state, she feared, could put her at risk of physical injury and worsen her mental health.
“I say put mental health first because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” she said in a press conference on July 27. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are rather than just battle through it.”
Like everyone, student-athletes may feel pressured to hide their mental health issues and not seek help.
“The stigma is not just strong in society, but in the athletic world it is worse,” Katie Kempff quotes a former basketball coach who suffered from mental health issues during his career as saying. Ms Kempff writes in The X-Ray, the student newspaper at St Charles East High School in Illinois.
“In a lot of ways, we create this stigma, by saying things to athletes like ‘you need to suck it up, pull up your bootstraps, you need to be ready to go,’ those kinds of things,” said Mark Potter, former head basketball coach at Newman University.
“In some ways, the culture of competitive sport is opposed to mental health help-seeking,” Isabelle Taylor quotes Oregon State’s Fernando Frias, who’s the coordinator of Sport Psychology Services, as saying in The Daily Barometer, the student newspaper at the university. “The very characteristics that promote athletic excellence—tolerating discomfort and pushing beyond perceived limits, etc.—make it hard for some to acknowledge mental health concerns.”
Mr Potter shared his story with St Charles students and others yesterday in the hope of easing the pressure student-athletes feel to hide their mental health problems.
“You realize that this thing is much bigger,” he told The X-Ray about his own mental health concerns. “And the bottom line is that if we do a decent job portraying some of our own struggles, it can truly relate to other people and allow them permission to go get help, or give them hope they never had before.”