Mental Health Tips for Your Inner Athlete 

Team USA gymnast Simone Biles did more than make headlines when she withdrew from some events she was expected to dominate at the recent Tokyo Olympics – she flipped the conversation about athletes and mental health on its head. When this gold medalist took herself out of some parts of the competition, citing the need to focus on how she was feeling mentally, her actions opened the floodgate to conversations about how anxiety, performance pressure and depression can affect elite athletes. 

But more than that, this global discussion has expanded to looking at how all athletes can work to protect their mental health, whether someone is competing at a high school or college level, or even as an adult enjoying competitive sports as a way to stay healthy and do an activity you love. 

A growing awareness of mental health. Many sports parents have seen the physical signs of mental health issues in younger athletes: kids who have panic attacks or stomach aches before an event, or those who frequently cry or become depressed after a team loss. But sometimes those issues that start in your head can stick around, even after you have matured.  

When looking at mental health among the college-age crowd, studies show 33% of all college students have reported experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or other conditions, according to Athletes for Hope, a U.S. nonprofit that helps athletes direct their philanthropic efforts. Of that 33%, only about one-third seek professional help. But when you’re talking about college athletes, the number seeking help drops to just 10%. 

 Identifying the problem. Mental health problems in athletes can cause stress, anxiety and depression, but sometimes can also lead to eating disorders and burnout. The same is true for “weekend warrior” type athletes who typically enjoy their sport on the weekends or after work. Those issues can take lots of different forms. Let’s say you love cycling with your Saturday morning bike group, but lately have been feeling anxious before the rides because you’re not sure if you’re keeping up well enough to be part of the team. If a persistent injury has left you sidelined from your indoor rec league sport, you may be feeling depressed. Or maybe you’re part of a competitive running group and you keep failing to hit the personal-best target you’ve set for yourself. 

The first step is letting yourself acknowledge there’s a problem. Then ask yourself if you’ve experienced physical changes related to this mental health issue. According to the Cleveland Clinic, here are some signs athletes might be struggling mentally: 

  • Changes in when and how much you are eating 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Feeling like you’ve got no energy left for sports 

Putting your mental health first. Once you realize you are struggling, it’s time to make a change. Here are some tips for managing your mental health, no matter what level of athlete you are. 

  • Acknowledge your emotions. Tell yourself it’s OK to feel what you are feeling. 
  • Focus on what you can do right now, not how you compare to others. 
  • Stay connected to family and friends. Now is not the time to be unsocial. 
  •  Make sleep a priority.
  • Make a new plan. Maybe this means adjusting your personal-best target or giving yourself permission to do only what you can do right now.
  • Conditions like anxiety and depression can lead to larger problems. Reach out to your health care provider for tips on managing these.  

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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