Being an athlete means that one must be in the best physical health. To maintain great physical health, an athlete may have a special diet or fitness training plan to help them perform to their greatest abilities on the playing field. But what about their mental health? Mental health problems can often go unaddressed and are harder to track than one’s physical health.
The main barrier when dealing with an athlete’s mental health is the stigma surrounding it. If an athlete needs to see a doctor for a physical ailment, they receive support from their teammates. Unfortunately, people have more negative responses when it comes to seeking out help for mental health.
In many sports environments, mental toughness is emphasized over emotions. Athletes may often keep their issues to themselves because they do not want to be judged by their peers. Dr. Alex Diaz, a psychotherapist, and doctor in clinical and somatic psychology said that athletes worry about how others may perceive their mental toughness. They worry about how someone will react if they see them walk into a mental health professional’s office.
Due to the stigma, many athletes may not have their problems dealt with by a professional. According to Dr. Diaz, someone with unaddressed mental health issues will most likely use unhealthy choices to deal with them. These coping mechanisms can include smoking, drinking, and controlled eating.
“Humans have a certain capacity to sustain stress. Once it reaches that capacity, the body has to find other ways to self cope,” Dr. Diaz said. “ Most of the time, those choices tend to be unhealthy unless they have been given healthy options from a professional.”
The first step in dealing with mental health among student-athletes is education. The coaches and athletic programs at colleges must make mental wellness a common language and focus on integrating mental wellness. Once this is done, students will feel as if they have plenty of support. Diaz said that if coaches share experiences that athletes have and normalize feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, or low motivation, then athletes will feel more comfortable asking for help.
“The more we provide education around healthy and normal emotional experiences, then the more likely an athlete will embrace that they need help,” Dr. Diaz said. “The more we embrace this notion of what it’s like to be human, then the more we normalize seeing a mental health professional.”
If coaches normalize conversations surrounding mental health, then athletes will see that it is normal to have mental health problems and will be more willing to ask for help. Companies that focus on improving the wellness of student-athletes, like the Zone, can help athletes seek help by increasing their connectedness with their athletic programs. Since the Zone consolidates a college’s resources, it can also make it easier for an athlete to navigate how to find help. An athlete’s ability to find help is especially important during the pandemic because they are not physically on campus.
Another way in which athletes can have improved mental health is steering away from a focus on winning. Coaches often prioritize winning since this is how a team’s success is measured. The problem with this is that it causes athletes to measure themselves in terms of winning and losing.
“Coaches focus on winning and are highly motivated to do well. Wanting to win can prevent them from seeing what an athlete needs,” Dr. Diaz said. “The focus must be more on the efforts an athlete puts in rather than on winning.”
If the focus is steered towards an athlete’s effort then they can be more relieved of the pressure of always winning which can be detrimental to one’s mental health. After a game or competition, athletes should ask themselves how they performed and what they can keep working on. Humans tend to think more negatively when things go wrong, so tracking self-progress is an important thing for an athlete to practice. Dr. Diaz said that instead of measuring their success through winning or losing, athletes should track their progress on a scale of 1–10. By using a scale, athletes can better recognize what they did well on the playing field and see where they have room for improvement.
There are also other techniques that athletes can develop as part of a daily routine to better their wellness. Every athlete is different so what might work for one athlete, may not work for another. For some athletes, long term goals are more important while for others short term work best. Athletes can look to focus on what can be done before and after a game.
Breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques can help an athlete to either prepare for a game or recover from a game. For help with developing great deep-breathing practices, Breethe is an app that offers deep-breathing techniques that can also be helpful for individuals with trouble falling asleep.
Setting goals for what to do during a particular game is one healthy practice that an athlete can incorporate into their wellness routine. Also, setting a long term physical goal can help an athlete to keep working hard towards something. With the Zone’s technology, tracking a physical goal is quite achievable.
Additionally, Dr. Diaz said that athletes should practice accepting losses which can also help them to look towards improvement. Developing healthy practices and a healthy mindset helps an athlete better deal with problems in life outside of sports. The pandemic has resulted in many disappointments such as campus closures and the sports season being canceled. These are out of one’s control and so accepting these disappointments is an important skill for an athlete to develop. One thing athletes have control over is how they respond to challenges and how they apply a healthy mindset so that they can continue to better themselves. The pandemic is providing athletes with the opportunity to develop a new way in which they can cope with hardships.
“Life throws a lot of curveballs and let downs that can create stress and self-doubt, but they are outside of an individual’s control,” Dr. Diaz said. “The pandemic can be a wonderful opportunity to learn about how to accept situations and learn from them to continue setting goals for oneself.”