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The "Invisible Injury": Mental Health and Sport

Athletes rigorously train their bodies to perform at the highest level. Doing so, they strengthen their muscles, perfect the required movements, and reduce the likelihood of injury. However, invariably injuries still occur. When they happen, there is a standard protocol that is followed: rest, rehab, recover. You’re not expected to play through a physical injury; it’s clear you are not at an optimal level to perform. Playing through an injury would only increase its severity and prolong the recovery time.

But what about the times when a player isn’t physically injured, but someone can look at them and tell something is off? Can someone, then, be ‘mentally’ injured? Before I explain this concept, I think calling this type of problem an ‘injury’ is perhaps too harsh of a descriptor. I make the comparison of a physical injury to that of a mental difficulty simply to justify its legitimacy. The level of seriousness taken for a physical injury should be the same when someone is dealing with challenges related to their mental health. A player needs time to rest, rehab, and recover in their own way. Playing through it is akin to playing through a physical injury. But because a mental health struggle isn’t always visible to the naked eye, some people may think that a player is ‘soft’ or has to ‘toughen up’. There is, unfortunately, a stigma about mental health that exists in the sports world, partly because of the persona that is typically associated with an athlete: tough, resilient, and confident. While many of the top athletes do indeed possess these qualities, they do not make a player immune to the challenges faced outside of competition. In fact, when athletes identify themselves with psychological characteristics such as those previously listed it can actually make facing mental obstacles, difficult emotions, and factors such as anxiety and depression even more difficult due to a lack of acceptance, repressed emotions, and avoidance.

Phrases such as:

“I’m not the type of person who goes through depression”.

“I don’t feel stress or anxiety - I’ve been in so many difficult situations”.

Are signals that an athlete may have this type of mindset.

Furthermore, we may think that a lot of the athletes we see on TV are “larger than life”, meaning they don’t deal with the same struggles regular people do. Since they’re getting paid millions to play sports, how could they have actual problems? However, fame and financial security are not a barrier to dealing with the raw human emotions of depression and anxiety. In reality, they can exacerbate these feelings. There’s a reason why Biggie said “Mo Money Mo Problems”. The challenges and social demands modern professional athletes and celebrities face are unlike any in human history. However, in a positive change of events, athletes are becoming more open about the topic of mental health and challenges that they are facing.

Professional Athletes and Mental Health:

DeMar DeRozan

Demar’s tweet came during the midst of All-Star weekend. On a panel alongside Kevin Love and sports psychologist Michael Gervais, he discusses his feelings leading up to this tweet. He admitted that he just wanted to be home with his daughters, away from the All-Star spotlight in LA.

Kevin Love

In an ESPN interview with Jackie MacMullan Kevin Love details the incident surrounding his panic attack on November 5th, 2017 during a game against the Atlanta Hawks.

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka’s decision during the French Open to skip press conferences to preserve her mental health resulted in subsequent fines from the association. In a self-essay published in Time, she said the following: “It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions.”

Simon Biles

Simon Biles prioritized her mental health and withdrew from the finals of her event in the Tokyo 2020(1) Olympics. In an article discussing the nature of her decision, she noted: "We think we can do it on our own, but sometimes we just can't. So use every outlet given to you."

Why Now?

Why did athletes like DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, Naomi Osaka, and Simon Biles decide that now was the right time to speak up about their struggles? I think the trend of vulnerability shows that everyone, athletes included, have real struggles, emotions, and mental health obstacles just like the rest of us. This is especially true if one is trying to cope alone and/or repress the severity of the feelings. At one point or another, there is a realization that reaching out for help is not only important; it is a necessity. Again, athletes aren’t superhuman; they face highs and lows just like everyone else.

The Power of Vulnerability

As more attention is generated towards mental health in sports, there is a need for coaches to continue to develop empathy toward players who are dealing with these issues. Players' concerns should not be taken lightly. While saying phrases like ‘toughen up’ or “this is how things have always been” could work in the interim, it further complicates the issue. Repression makes issues more intense when they come to the surface. In the video attached above with Love, DeRozan, and Dr. Gervais, the power of vulnerability was discussed. Specifically, Love makes a great point surrounding the stigma of vulnerability and its perception as being “soft”, especially in the population of adolescent males. However, in reality vulnerability is the exact opposite. Reaching out for support and working through factors impacting yourself and others is the surest sign of strength there is.

Love: “With kids, I feel like so much of the time, they feel like if they’re vulnerable, or allow themselves to be vulnerable or speak their truth that they’re weak. But if anything I’ve learned it’s made me more comfortable in my own skin”

Being comfortable with who you are and what your needs are, including asking for help, is tremendously powerful. Why? Because despite the criticism that may be faced by others for speaking up (who in most cases are too nervous to speak up themselves; misery loves company, am I right?), you still stand tall and do what’s best for yourself. That is Empowerment.

Takeaway: It’s okay to find the support you need

Injuries are a common occurrence in sports. As a result, there are clearly defined and effective practices for recovering from injury. When it comes to dealing with issues related to mental health, the best practices are a little less clear. Because people vary in what works best for them, the right approach depends on the specific needs of the individual. Therefore, if anyone reading this feels they’d benefit from speaking to a therapist or medical professional for guidance, consider giving it a try. We’re happy to recommend one if helpful.

Additionally, mental support can be even more valuable prior to mental health challenges or these "invisible injuries". Mental performance coaching is a new field that teaches athletes and performers mental skills and strategies to help them get the most out of their training, perform under pressure and proactively strengthen mental approaches prior to any mental health challenges arising. So when difficulty inevitably does arise the athlete has tools in their toolbelt to help them navigate these challenges and has existing relationships with providers who can help support them or refer them to the necessary mental health resource. This is a growing field and extremely extremely valuable for young developing athletes. Not only is it good for your mental wellness but it provides a competitive advantage as well.

As you’ve seen from the athletes' stories above who have opened up to others about their struggles, including with a therapist, there is no shame in reaching out for help or support. Don’t worry, asking for help doesn’t make you any less of a competitor. Quite the contrary: having a support network, whether it's family, teammates/coaches, or a therapist can instill a greater sense of confidence in your ability to excel on and off the playing field.


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