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Mental Health: The Vital Component of Successful Athletes We Won't Talk About

On November 5 2017, Kevin Love, a basketball player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, dashed away from the court and into the empty locker rooms. "I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, 'You’re about to die'. I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe."

What was wrong? Love was in the throes of a panic attack. He went to the team clinic and was checked out, but he was found to be completely physically healthy. He had no heart condition, no physical weakness, and was in the best physical health of his life.

The problem was mental - and that meant he didn't want to talk about it. Just like thousands of other athletes all over the world, he had been trained to hide his feelings. His personal life had no place on the court - at least until it forced its way there.

Athletes Don't Talk About Mental Health

Athletics is a culture of working tirelessly to both feel and appear invulnerable. Every high-level athlete needs to feel as though he or she has done absolutely everything possible to maximize his or her physical potential. That mindset is on display for others, and it can and will have an effect on teammates, coaches and opponents. That’s why we have weight rooms and advanced training techniques and nutritional guidelines and so many other things, yet athlete mental health is rarely discussed or prioritized.

Why is that? Mental health is as important to any athlete as the health of his or her knees, back or shoulders, so why is the strongest muscle in the body ignored by so many athletes, coaches, administrators and the like? Is it all because of the perceived stigma attached to athlete mental health? It’s not as if no one is aware that mental health is a serious problem among groups of athletes.

National Collegiate Athletic Association research has shown that 80% of certified athletic trainers believe that anxiety disorders are currently an issue with student-athletes on their campus. This isn’t likely to change unless we all start addressing our issues, whether they’re physical or mental.

"Nobody talked about what they were struggling with on the inside,” said Love in an article he wrote for the Player’s Tribune. “I remember thinking, What are my problems? I’m healthy. I play basketball for a living. What do I have to worry about? I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak."

This lack of willingness to share is a sentiment that pervades all areas of sport. When it comes to your performance, the only mental game considered is whether or not you're in a winning mindset. Whether you're telling yourself you can do it or can't. Not about whether or not you're stressing about things happening outside your sport or being overwhelmed by things in your past - or a combination.

The stigma attached to mental health issues is so prevalent that, in the minds of many, if you can't handle yourself mentally, you're not good enough to be at the top of your sport.

Pro athletes are Surrounded by Professionals, but No Therapists

There is a very strong culture of being “at the top of your game” within the sporting industry. Professional athletes often have a designated assistant for every part of their life, except one. Love writes, "It’s kind of strange when you think about it. In the NBA, you have trained professionals to fine-tune your life in so many areas. Coaches, trainers and nutritionists have had a presence in my life for years. But none of those people could help me in the way I needed when I was lying on the floor struggling to breathe."

Fortunately, the Cleveland Cavaliers helped Love to find a therapist, and after some skepticism, he found what a relief talking to an impartial professional was.

Athletes Don't Talk About Personal Struggles

Whether it’s fear of looking like they’re seeking pity or attention, or simply feeling ashamed about the fact that they’re not feeling 100%, athletes do not generally open up about personal issues they’ve had, or are having.This seemingly falls in line with the overall culture of high-level athletics. You don’t want to show anyone you’re injured or even hurting, as that could lead to opponents attacking what they perceive as an advantage or coaches becoming leery of playing someone who isn’t 100 percent ready. Whether the “injury” involves a knee or mental health, in many cases, unfortunately, this culture doesn’t differentiate.

Love points out that before he started seeing a therapist, and receiving mental wellness training, he was the last person who’d have considered going to a therapist for help. This knee-jerk reaction of dismissing the idea of therapy comes from the assumption that just because someone is physically healthy and may appear fine on the outside, doesn’t mean their mental health doesn’t need checking.

There’s also a lot to be said for the instinctive pack mentality which leads us to believe that stepping outside of the norm is wrong. As we mentioned earlier, Love said, “I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak.”

This view is extremely problematic and often dangerous for some. NCAA male athletes have a significantly higher rate of suicide compared with female athletes, and football athletes appear to be at greatest risk. But who can we look to for inspiration in stepping up and speaking about their struggles?

Sportspeople Finding Their Voice

Of course we know that depression and anxiety aren’t always circumstantial; you can be the best in your field, surrounded by friends and family, with no money worries, and still feel extremely low.Despite all the training in the world and living the healthiest lifestyle possible, no one is impervious to injuries. The same holds true with regards to athlete mental health – anyone can suffer from this type of challenge at any time and for any reason.

Professional Canadian Football Player and 2x Grey Cup Champion, Founder and CEO of WellMen Project, Shea Emry has spoken up saying that men need to realize there’s no shame in feeling vulnerable as a man. Fortunately, this message is slowly beginning to spread in the sporting community, and other athletes have since come forward to share their stories. Serena Williams, Michael Phelps and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are among the many professionals who have spoken openly about living with depression, bi-polar disorder and anxiety respectively.

How We Can Protect Our Mental Health as Athletes

Protecting our mental health as athletes is not down to us alone, it has to be something we embrace in every sport. Here’s what we can do to support our own health and the health of others:

  • While stigma and shame are still associated with mental health issues, not being afraid to speak up and ask for help is key in maintaining your mental health.
  • You do not have limited options – it’s always an option to look for help outside the sport for support. You don’t have to seek support in person, either.
  • Solidarity is also of huge importance in cultivating a culture of speaking freely about our mental health issues. It’s important that we support our teammates and others in our sport who speak up about struggling.
  • Staying mentally healthy is just as important as staying physically fit. Learning anxiety management skills and receiving mental wellness training can be of huge help if you’re inclined to push away feelings.
  • If the people within your social circle aren’t openly putting your mental health first, you may want to reconsider who you have around you. It’s vital that you only work with sports coaches who pay attention to your mental health and encourage you to speak openly. It’s in their best interest that you’re healthy, just as it is in yours!

Sharing your struggles with mental health can be extremely daunting, and nobody enjoys feeling vulnerable. But as we’ve mentioned, your mental health is equally as valuable as your physical health, and there’s no reason to emphasize one while the other one slides.

As Kevin Love notes in his article, “No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside. Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need.” Being honest with yourself and seeking help is the first (and often the most difficult) step towards healing yourself and becoming the best version of you.

If you’re an athlete and are looking into mental wellness training, Restoic is here to support you. Our digital coaching is done online, so if you’re afraid about how your teammates or in-person coaches will react, we can support you from afar and they don’t ever have to know, unless you want them to.

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