An Alternative Approach To Mental Health for Athletes
What if athletes approached mental health the same way we approached physical health?
This was a question, Alexi Pappas, an Olympic runner, recently shared that really got me thinking.
When it comes to competition, athletes go above and beyond to prepare. You strengthen your muscles, you improve your cardiovascular capacity, you rest and recover. You do altitude training. You study tape or film, memorize plays, visualize races…the preparation never ends.
Athletes know how to work out their bodies for optimal and peak performance. It’s what we live and breathe.
But then, you get hurt. A muscle gets worn down, a tendon tears, or a bone breaks. And perhaps there is a moment or a period of time where you try and ignore it, or fight through the pain. But when it’s bad, you know…it must be fixed. From that moment forward, you’re on it.
Healing that injury becomes the most important goal. You go to psychotherapy, you stretch, you do rehab exercises, you even rest in order to heal.
Well, what if we approached our mental health the same way? What if the anxious feelings, the depressive or suicidal ideations, or the lows through losses were also viewed as an injury? What if you looked at depression as a torn muscle, and anxiety as a stress fracture?
A few things would be very different and for the better.
1. You would follow a clear process for rehabbing your injury.
Injuries have a prescribed recovery process. There are resources to healing a physical injury, there are normal check-ins with doctors, trainers, coaches. It’s a checklist you can follow, combined with timing and trust.
When athletes find themselves experiencing mental injuries…I offer the idea to follow the same process. Dedicate portions of your day to caring for your mind, treat yourself kindly as though your injury is fragile. When I broke my ankle in college, I rested, elevated, and walked gently, I spent a few hours each day rehabbing my ankle. I wish that I had treated my mind the same way when I went through bouts of depression. Instead, I brushed it aside, pretended it didn’t exist, and was angry when it snuck itself back into my life.
2. You would communicate about it.
When you break a bone, you tell your coach. When your muscles are sore and tight, you communicate with your trainers about this. Even when you are struggling to break through a mental block within your training, you talk with coaches about what is happening. The same should be with how you communicate about your mental health.
After all, your mental wellness has a direct correlation to your athletic performance. It is in everyone’s best interest to care. According to MentalHealth.org, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, ultimately affecting how you think, feel, and act. Everything is so closely woven together, which can be a powerful truth, but, when your mental health isn’t performing, other aspects of your life such as your confidence, competitive nature and physical health suffer.
But why is it so hard to speak up?
As a competitor, the last thing you ever want to do is show weakness. I get it. Admitting you are mentally struggling to stay strong, to be positive and excited about the day puts you at a disadvantage for your sport. When athletes talk about their weaknesses, it cracks the facade of strength. Competition is like war, when you show your weak side, you lose. Especially if you are on a team sport, knowing that a teammate is struggling doesn’t necessarily scream, “let’s rely on them to help us succeed”. But, not saying anything and struggling, might be even worse.
3. The shame wouldn’t evade the rest of you.
The reality is, competitive athletes are seen as strong individuals, leaders, and in many ways have a near godlike persona, especially the G.O.A.T.’s. Michael Phelps spoke on this in the HBO documentary, The Weight of Gold, when asked about battling mental health, “We are human…I don’t think I have to say anything else.”
There has been a stigma around mental health for, well, basically all of time. More often than not, people with mental health issues don’t talk about their condition from the fear of getting mocked by those around them. According to Kaiser Permanente, “8 out of 10 people with mental health conditions say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking help”. And while it is becoming more acceptable and publicly shared, there still lies a layer of judgment and perceived weakness associated with mental illness.
A physical injury doesn’t define who you are, neither should any mental struggle. Don’t equate yourself with your mental illness. Let me ask you this, when have you ever heard someone say, “I am a torn ACL.”? Likely, never. Instead of saying, “I am depressed,” you can say, “I have depression, right now”. By creating this separation from yourself and your struggle, it becomes less of who you are and more of a single facet that you are working on. This is one of many simple shifts we can begin to take to remove the shame associated with mental illness.
While I don’t have the answers for how to change this, I do recognize the perception of mental health amongst athletes is an issue worth exploring, this is worth wanting to improve.
And as a competitor, I want to compete against this silence. Let’s race.
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