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Down but Not Out: Mental Health and Sports

‘It’s all in your head’, ‘don’t worry ‘it’s just a phase’ are toxic phrases so deeply rooted in our society, that they leave little to no room to express any concerns about mental health. A sprain in the ankle calls for immediate treatment because it's a visible and tangible injury, but poor mental health is not visible unless making it not as real. Hustle culture in sports has created a situation wherein there is a constant need for athletes to stay motivated and on top of their game, thus preventing them from acknowledging their lows and being in touch with their emotions. This stigmatization of mental illness, coupled with an ignorant attitude, have made the sports industry extremely toxic. For decades, athletes have harboured hesitance to come forward and be vocal about their mental health struggles. But, 2021 has been monumental for athletes, and will go down in history, as it was perhaps, for the first time in their lives, they prioritised their mental health, above all else.

In the past, athletes like Michael Phelps and Terry Bradshaw have come forward to talk about their struggles, paving the way for others to feel confident to share their journeys as well. Simone Biles created an uproar worldwide, because she decided to prioritize her mental health over the Olympics. She is undoubtedly the greatest American gymnast, with accolades that amount to over 32 medals from the Olympics and world championships combined. The entire world anticipated Simon Biles to emerge victorious, yet again, and she did, only to succumb to a severe case of the 'twisties'. Twisties is essentially an instance wherein the mind and body lose sync, and can result in harmful injuries.. After being tended to by medical professionals, Simone declared she would be withdrawing from the Olympics. In her Facebook documentary, ‘Simone vs Me’ she has opened up a lot about her struggle with depression, and how the expectations of the world have resulted in her feeling suffocated. Her decision to withdraw from the Olympics stirred a fair share of controversy, but her candor made people empathise with her state. It also prompted discussions about the mental well-being of athletes, which were perhaps formerly never deemed worthy of discussion. It soon became an opportunity for everyone struggling with similar problems to take the leap and voice their struggles as well.

Simone Biles hasn’t single-handedly created this deep impact that led to an initiation of more honest conversations about the mental health of sportspersons Naomi Osaka, the tennis prodigy also has played an enormous role in the same. Refusing to participate in the post-match conference and later dropping out of the French Open at the beginning of 2021, her choices confused many, but the support and positive response she received was just an indication of how people finally recognise that athletes are humans too. Simone mentions that it was due to Naomi’s courage, that she felt empowered and brave enough to take such a bold step.

Approximately 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental health-related illnesses, making it apparent there’s an immediate need to call attention to this pervasive issue. Athletes are more often than not, perceived as superhumans, and are believed to possess character traits that bear a strong resemblance to those of masculinity, strength, and unwavering courage. The presence of a mental illness shows signs of weakness and vulnerability, shattering public perception of their possession of supposed 'superhuman' qualities. Millions of sports fans around the world have created this god-like persona around their beloved athletes. They’ve created a bubble, that their idols are always going to be perfect, and nothing can perturb them. As the athletes come forward to talk about their journeys, which include their own human struggles, this bubble bursts. This inevitably leads to a lot of public hate and outrage, which creates more distress for athletes.

To make a name for themselves, athletes are placed under immense pressure in order to succeed and break records. In the long term, this type of pressure becomes overwhelming and all-consuming, making it difficult for both elites and newcomers. Most athletes experience performance anxiety, especially those at the peak of their careers or nearing their retirement. There’s this overbearing urge to be consistent in their wins and to perform in a certain manner because of the fear of disappointing their teams, the people around them, or sometimes an entire nation. “The game is you and you are the game”, is a pretty standardized notion in the sports world, frequently troubling athletes in differentiating between themselves as humans and athletes. A lot of them fall into this vicious cycle, facing an identity crisis and placing their self-worth and value based on how they perform in their sport.

Research suggests, mental illnesses are prominent among the ages that overlap with an athlete’s peak years. Furthermore, the weight of people’s expectations, combined with pushing through with extreme training conditions, and built-up stress and anxiety over the year with no outlet whatsoever, could well explain the poor mental wellbeing of athletes. This is extremely concerning, since the industry that demands mental health awareness, lacks it the most.

The situation is changing, gradually, by the endeavours and attempts of those who have had courage to vocalize their struggles. People are changing their opinion about athletes. Not only viewing them as superhumans they idolize, but also as humans who fall and who also face adversities. And this is a huge step in the right direction, because it allows all of us to self-reflect and acknowledge that we can work on being better empaths, and better fans.

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