Combating Depression and Anxiety in Sports
Recent tragedies reveal the silent stigma in sports.
Posted November 14, 2018
Madison Holleran was a star freshman track athlete at the University of Pennsylvania. She seemingly had it all. On the night of January 17, 2014, Madison leapt over the ninth-floor railing of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, taking her own life, and leaving friends and family with more questions than answers.
In a similarly tragic event, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski died by suicide in January 2018, succumbing to self-inflicted gunshot wounds. There was no indication to family or friends that Tyler was struggling, and his family later indicated that autopsy results showed he had the degenerative brain condition CTE.
The tragic stories of Madison and Tyler reveal the prevalence of anxiety and depression faced by many of today’s elite athletes, and it is important to understand that even the most accomplished and successful athletes are not immune from these conditions. Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympic athlete of all time, indicated in the spring of 2018 on a popular podcast that he had been severely depressed at times over his career, and even contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympic games.
[NOTE: Mental health issues can be serious and should be diagnosed and treated only by a licensed mental health practitioner. If you have concerns or questions about your own mental health, please seek out a licensed mental health professional.)
What Are the Causes?
There are many challenging dynamics involved in playing competitive sports in today’s fast-paced, high-stakes, outcome-based, social media world. Athletes are increasingly feeling the pressure of all of these external stressors, while their intrinsic “love of the game” is being diminished by the expectations of others.
In my experience, there are six overarching themes in the buildup to athlete mental health challenges:
1. Perfectionism: It is admirable to want to do everything right all the time. But for human beings, it's not realistic and can lead to problems, including:
a. Overtraining, which over time will lead to injuries.
b. Inability to transfer practice or training success to competition because of too-high expectations, which leads to decreased performance.
c. Feeling worthless and like a failure if any mistakes are made, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
2. Fear of Failure: This is primarily the result of athletes feeling that they are “not enough” in the eyes of others. These “others” could be their parents, coaches, teammates, fans, the media or general population. Sports competition is on display for everyone to see.
3. Injuries: The experience and aftermath of athletic injuries can be very daunting for athletes who obviously rely on their physical abilities to perform. The arduous process of rehabilitation—wondering if you will ever again “feel back to normal,” then returning to play—and the fear of reinjury can create a great deal of stress.
4. Lifestyle: Lack of self-care can be a major obstacle for an athlete. Athletes should be proactive about managing their environment and surroundings—and be vigilant about proper sleep, nutrition, recovery from previous activity, balancing commitments and social connections.
5. Managing Change/Transition: To be a successful athlete over time, you must navigate changes in your lifestyle, location, environment, and social surroundings. An example could be a successful high school athlete who transitions to college on an athletic scholarship only to realize that they are in a new place—with higher expectations—and are starting at the bottom of the depth chart.
6. Fear of Success: Although counter-intuitive, and less likely than some of these other factors, the fear of success is real. Some athletes fear the responsibilities and commitments that come with being successful. An athlete in this category may not want to be in the spotlight or to take up the mantle of being a role model, or may not want the commitment of additional training or expenses that go with success.
As mental health continues to be an important issue for athletes, the following 12 coping tips can help:
12 Effective Coping Tips
- Seek help: The first obvious thing to do is to seek help from a licensed professional. Many sports organizations and institutions offer counseling services.
- Avoid substance abuse: Do not use alcohol or drugs to cope with your issues.
- Develop social support: Meet new people who are positive and fun, be proactive in who you surround yourself with, and seek the support of others.
- Create awareness: Be in the present; don’t focus on the past or future. Be grateful for the here and now.
- Engage your creative side by writing, art, meditating, breathing, yoga, music, massage, and other relaxation techniques.
- Recreation: Get outside and relax with an activity that is different from your sport.
- Sleep: Lack of sleep causes many physical and mental issues.
- Nutrition: Eat a balanced diet and make sure you get enough nutrients for performance.
- Humor: Laughter is the best medicine.
- Volunteer: Get outside of yourself and help others.
- Realize that you can only control your thoughts, actions and efforts.
- Recognize your triggers: What causes your stress or anxiety? If you know what triggers your negative feelings, you can begin to develop skills to eliminate, replace or minimize them.
American Psychological Association (2018) http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/09/cover-pressure.aspx
Fagan, K. (2017). What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen.