Athletes and Mental Health: What Can You Learn?

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Athletes and Mental Health: What Can You Learn? | Expressions Counselling

Michael Phelps. Grant Hackett. Kelly Slater. Clara Hughes. Kevin Love. Tiger Woods. What do all of these people have in common? As you may already know, they are all elite athletes who have pushed the boundaries of sport, winning numerous medals and accolades. What you may not know is that they all struggle with mental illness. And what does that make them? 

Human. 

Just like you, 

And just like me. 

Last week as I walked around the seawall before commencing yet another day of working from home, I listened to an inspiring podcast. Tim Ferris interviews Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett in his most recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. Phelps and Hackett are both Olympic gold medalists in swimming. These are two athletes, amongst others, who are sharing their personal stories with depression and anxiety and explore the mental burden that comes with greatness. This podcast led me to a multitude of other podcasts, documentaries, and articles with a similar theme. There are important lessons that can be learned from those brave enough to open up. 

These athletes’ life’s work can be judged in a 48.97 second event, where half of a second can be the difference between 1st and 4th. This brief minute of their life defines their future and validates their past. 

Imagine the pressure. Imagine waking up every day, exercising, and training your body to be the best at your sport. If you wake up tired or not in the mood, all you can think about is the other athletes in your sport getting ahead. You think, I can’t miss a single day of training. You push through. After all, your shareholders depend on you; your identity, your career, your sponsors, your coaches, and your family. A half second in the race can make all of the difference. 

Like a pressure cooker, eventually you must let out steam. Otherwise you will explode and break. But how can you talk about this invisible injury? Everyone thinks you are perfect. 

35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, which may manifest as stress, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, substance use or burnout. This statistic is no different than the lay person. Physical strength does not make you immune to depression. 

You may not be an elite athlete. You may not even be into sports or exercising.

So, how does this relate to you?  

Do you ever find yourself saying the following?

“I am not good enough.”

“I will never be the best.”

“I am a failure.”

These are the self-critical voices in the minds of elite athletes, and in fact, most people. Your private voice, the inner self-critic says things to you that you would never say to anyone else. 

Our culture stresses independence and individual achievement. Whatever you do each day, you believe, “I am what I do.” You believe that if you don’t achieve your goals, you are a failure. At least your inner self-critic tells you so. 

Society tells us to be better and work harder. But when is it enough? It will always be the next project, the next raise, the next house. The finish line keeps getting moved further. The world records keep changing. 

You are left feeling unsatisfied. You focus on the failures and miss celebrating all of the successes. If this is the mindset, just like these athletes, you will burnout. 

Some say you must have grit or mental toughness to make it. But the self-critical voice will eventually build, until you must let out steam. There is a distorted belief that self-criticism is a motivating force. In reality, self-criticism is a risk factor for depression and dissatisfaction with life. 

Self-criticism is a risk factor for depression and dissatisfaction. 

We are quick to look at Olympians, athletes, and those around us and think that they have it all together. But we don’t always look at ourselves and think this way. Why is it so easy to see the strengths in others, yet so difficult to see the strengths in ourselves?

Stop listening to the inner self-critic. You can learn to change the tone and language of this private voice. 

I hope that we can learn from elite athletes, but I hope they can learn from the rest of us too. At the end of the day, we are all human.

Are you overcommitting? Are you overtraining? Are you overworking? Burnout is a real issue in our society. 

If you feel this way, reach out to someone. That inner self-critic is not getting you anywhere. 

Jordana Saks

Jordana Saks

Jordana Saks is a Registered Clinical Counsellor at Expressions Counselling. She is passionate about working with individuals to overcome anxiety, depression, trauma, stress, life transitions, and relationship issues. She sees clients in-person at our Burnaby and North Vancouver locations as well as online.

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