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The Mental Gap Between Team and Individual Sports

Athletes in all sports have mental barriers to overcome, but between individual and team competitions lie differences that offer unique challenges and outcomes.


For most athletes, their journey in sports begins as a child, a critical time for mental development. Sports are often seen by parents as outlets for their children that can teach them a life lesson or two, but when it comes to individual and team sports, these lessons are very different. The typical philosophy goes that team sports teach children about teamwork, and playing a role, whereas individual sports are more focused on mental fortitude and improving the self.

All of these lessons are important for children growing up, but the results of these lessons can hold worsening mental health effects for athletes in individual sports, according to a report published by The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. In this report, the data gathered displays that athletes in individual sports are almost twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, but why?

When it comes to individual sports the biggest competition for athletes is themselves. Take the example of swimming. In training and competition, the goal for athletes is to beat their previous time for the given race. While you compete against others during races, in most cases they have no effect on your performance. The only errors in the sporting event are made by the singular athlete, whereas in sports like basketball, anyone on the floor can have a bad game and losses cannot be easily drawn up to the fault of one player.

Additionally, the lack of a support system for individual sport athletes can be a factor in their increased rates of depression and anxiety. Circling back to the swimming analogy, after the race is finished, no matter the outcome, often the only person the swimmer has to refer to is their coach or trainer, who may turn out to be very critical of the athlete depending on the outcome of the race. Compare this to basketball, where the burden of defeat is shouldered by the entire team, giving athletes more peers who they can speak to about how they are feeling.

We see athletes in many sports that suffer from mental health struggles, but recently individual sport athletes have been speaking out concerning their mental health more than ever. It started with Naomi Osaka, but has turned into Simone Biles, Emma Raducuna and others. All these individual sport athletes have shown their own vulnerability and in doing so created a space for all athletes to speak on mental health, especially for individual sport athletes.

To move forward, we must find ways of making sure that athletes involved in individual sports have the correct outlets for their emotion, and that their coaches and staff allow them the space to process tough defeats.


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