SAN ANTONIO- Within the past few years, the importance of mental health has been heavily discussed in classrooms, offices and even between family members. The question is, who takes those mental health discussions to the field or to the gym?
In the eyes of many, athletes are competitors who can overcome any obstacle in their path, but what if the biggest obstacle they face is their own mind?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in the United States, one in five adults suffers from mental illness every year, and athletes are no exception. These mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, eating disorders and panic disorders.
The truth is, while athletes may appear to have a large sense of confidence, they experience the same internal struggles as everyone else, especially student-athletes.
“It’s tough when your body is exhausted and your mind is tired, but you still have classes to work on,” Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) sophomore and Saint’s soccer goalkeeper, Tess Pitcher said. “It also gets hard mentally when you are not performing like you know you can. It’s hard to feel so stuck, almost like there is no way out.”
Stress from training, practices and competitions is nothing new for athletes, but over time it can drive them to become perfectionists, leaving them feeling unsatisfied no matter how well they perform.
“I’ve always been a perfectionist, and I truly believe it’s because of soccer. I hate to fail or be second, so I do everything I can to prevent that,” Pitcher said. “For me I think maybe I tend to get frustrated, but I try not to project that onto my teammates. I try to keep that anger directed at myself.”
Athletes’ physical health can sometimes be prioritized over their mental health, as many believe that the condition of their bodies is what makes them successful. However, an athlete’s mental state can have an impact on the way they manage their emotions and behaviors during a game.
“When I’m not in a good place mentally, I take mistakes much harder and take a lot longer to work past them,” Pitcher said. “I pull from emotions in my play, so when I’m not in a good mental place those emotions can boil over and feel suffocating.”
As an athlete, speaking up about mental health can often lead to being labeled as weak or as a quitter, which can sometimes deter them from seeking help.
However, as prominent athletes such as Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, are now speaking out about the amount of pressure that sports and competitions place on athletes, others are beginning to realize just how important mental health is.
“I’ve realized over the years that when your mind isn’t clear, your play will show that. It’s hard to play at your best when you’re not feeling your best,” Pitcher said. “It’s similar to a cold, if you are sick you can’t play at 100%. Sports can be full of overwhelming emotions. It’s important for athletes to be able to work through them and move forward.”
Though it may seem difficult, finding mental health help and guidance on how to deal with certain emotions can be done by just speaking with someone.
“Talk to your family and friends around you,” Pitcher said. “Working through things alone is not always a sign of strength. Sometimes things are too heavy for one person to hold by themselves; just ask for help and take a break when you need one.”
For athletes, coaches and their parents, the most important way to acknowledge these issues is to have an open discussion and to communicate about the mental health aspect of sports.
OLLU provides free mental health services to students who may be experiencing difficulties. A student can speak with someone on demand or schedule a counseling appointment with a health coach at the Health Education Resource Office on campus.
OLLU offers Community Counseling, where individuals can bring a friend, a significant other, or a family member to receive counseling or psychological testing. For more information or to schedule an appointment contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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