Elite athletes have begun speaking out about mental struggles they face in their sport, especially in relation to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Whether it be tennis start Naomi Osaka dropping out of the French Open tournament for the sake of her mental health, or Simone Biles choosing not to participate in Olympic events for her mental and physical safety, these actions have placed a spotlight on the severity of the topic in a way that society has not seen in the past.
It is important to understand that high school athletes experience similar obstacles, from burnout, anxiety to stress or other psychological concerns. Society has stigmatized mental health for many years by creating the expectation that people should persevere and cope with their challenges internally. Most athletes need mental health support, especially high school students, considering that adolescents and young adults are particularly susceptible to psychological struggles.
Mental health issues for student-athletes may stem from a variety of factors, including pressure to do well, overtraining and stress from balancing the time they dedicate to sports, extracurriculars and academic responsibilities.
According to The Atlantic, athletes often place on themselves much of the pressure that they feel in training or competition.
“Often in sports, we say pressure is a privilege. Like, if you’re feeling pressure, that means you’re an important part of the outcome of something,” said Fountain Valley High School mathematics teacher and girls’ basketball coach Marianne Karp. “So I think [student athletes] when they feel pressure, it’s self-imposed. Everybody wants to do their best.”
Karp views pressure as an incentive, which is undoubtedly necessary when participating in sports. However, with experience as a varsity swimmer, FVHS senior Jovana Hester expressed how self-imposed pressure can generate an unreasonable expectation for an athlete.
“You get high expectations placed on you all around, and I think [the biggest source] is from yourself because you are your harshest critic,” Hester said. “Then when you don’t hit your goals, when you fall a little short, you lose a race, a game, whatever it is, you can kind of [start] to talk bad about yourself and then that can really send you on a downward spiral of negativity. [It] just kind of puts you in a slump a little bit.”
Hester is not the only athlete who has experienced this “slump” while training or competing.
Athletes often face burnout or overtraining syndrome when they have a rigorous practice schedule and push themselves through challenging training but see a decline in performance. Dedication to a single sport at an early age, year-round training without breaks and pressure to do well are among several risk factors for overtraining syndrome or burnout. In the process of reaching their goals, athletes often seek perfection but could eventually burn out from unsustainable physical and mental exertion.
“I think sometimes [athletes] don’t listen to their self-talk. Sometimes it’s like, ‘I need a break,’” Karp said. “They don’t listen to [themselves] all the time because they’re athletes and most of us, athletes, we drive through things. We want to show that we’re dedicated.”
Coaches, parents and athletic clubs have encouraged and pushed for consistent practice and loyalty to one particular sport. While dedication is an important factor in improving, an athlete can show commitment without pushing themselves to a harmful point.
Exhaustion and lack of sleep, common challenges for athletes with long, intense practices, build a foundation for both mental and physical complications. Because parents frequently place emphasis on training hard to do well. in the sport, an athlete may feel an obligation to push themselves to make up for the time, work and money their parents dedicate to their participation in the sport.
Hester has felt this pressure to improve her times for her parents and coaches, who have contributed greatly to her experience as a swimmer. For Hester, “plateauing can definitely be a huge cause of burnout,” which relates back to the high anxiety and emphasis on doing well.
She has been a three-year varsity swimmer for FVHS and swam at the club level since she was 12 years old, but recently quit the sport altogether at the age of 17.
“Toward the end, I started to experience that heavy level of anxiety that started to become debilitating, or I couldn’t really focus on my practices and I couldn’t focus on anything other than swimming while outside of swim,” Hester said.
By drawing time away from other components of an athlete’s life and limiting rest time to fulfill personal needs, sports may contribute to concerns like depression. Hester mentioned how she often had to miss social events because of conflicting practice times, lack of energy and the requirement to rest before swim meets.
“Physically, [swimming] made me feel really good. I knew that I was getting exercise. I was clearing my mind when I was able to, [during] that period where it felt really good, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. In regards to my everyday life, it was kind of overpowering a little bit because everything would have to revolve around swim,” Hester said.
This conflict has been a major issue for athletes, who can find difficulty in separating their identities and individuality from the sport. Olympians commonly encounter this experience after competing on such a high level, and Michael Phelps has discussed the reality of this obstacle through the media, such as in the documentary “The Weight of Gold.”
Hester also admitted to having felt overwhelmed in trying to be a well-rounded student-athlete, balancing as much as four or five hours a day of training along with her school work and extracurricular activities. At the same time, she had to focus on college applications and her résumé, adding an additional level of stress to the situation.
Fortunately, there are a variety of strategies for coaches and athletes to decrease pressure and anxiety related to sports.
“There’s always something different you can do as a coach, which [could be] a team bonding event, not necessarily [something] that is physiologically stressful — something fun,” Karp said.
As a coach, she understands the importance of rest from the physical and mental tolls that training might take. By allowing the team to partake in some other activity outside of basketball, Karp encourages her players to listen to their “self-talk” and take a break when they need it.
Hester recommended that an athlete keeps in mind the other aspects of their life outside of the sport, such as friends or other extracurricular activities. When she felt exhausted and burnt out, she would go as far away from the pool as possible to de-stress.
Other than these helpful tips for balancing time with activities unrelated to athletics, there are several key resources that student-athletes should utilize if they ever realize they are having any sort of trouble. Karp feels that the first place to go is to your parents because “they’re the ones that are going to help you and understand the situation more than anybody else.”
School resources are also incredibly important to reach out to, including School Psychologist Cynthia Olaya and the Student Support Center, where a student can seek any sort of counseling and other resources. Thirdly, Karp addressed the benefits of speaking with a coach.
“[If you] turn your ankle, you have a sprained ankle. It’s obvious. The coach can see that. And we can make adjustments,” Karp said. “But mental health doesn’t show up like that, and I think sometimes a good conversation with a coach [is] important.”
While high school athletes may feel intimidated by taking the step to ask for help, the voices and actions of elite athletes have likely been a source of inspiration for many who previously thought they were alone in their struggles.
“Sometimes, as a teenager, you think, ‘I’m the only one that feels this way.’ And when you see somebody at [the next level] advocating for people to listen to their self-talk and what’s going on within themselves, I think it provides them with some understanding and empathy that ‘Here I am. I kind of feel the same way,’” Karp said.
Hester holds a similar viewpoint to Karp in the sense that some younger athletes need encouragement and inspiration to talk about their personal struggles.
“I think [the voices of elite athletes are] very helpful towards destigmatizing mental health, especially amongst a group of people that have so much pressure on them to perform at such a high level,” Hester said.
In response to this new vocalization, organizations, notably the International Olympic Committee and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, have begun making adjustments to accommodate for the psychological needs of athletes. Prior to the Tokyo Games, the IOC created new regulations regarding the issue and have maintained a panel of mental health experts since 2018.
The USOPC recently created support groups and programs to reach out to struggling athletes, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics marked the first time both Team USA and Team Great Britain brought mental health professionals to support each sport’s athletes. While there is still room for improvement, the world has achieved much progress in regards to the creation of mental health resources for athletes in the past few years.
In the end, everyone should be conscious of mental health in athletics, but sports also bring a great deal of joy to the lives of many. Karp has witnessed how her players enjoy attending their practice because of everything it provides for them.
“It [gives the athletes] an opportunity to be together, it [gives] them an opportunity to run around, exert some of their energy [and] share their mental concerns with their teammates. [It provides] a lot for the student-athletes,” Karp said.