Most sports fans assume professional athletes are living the dream, getting paid a hefty salary to do the thing they love, all day, every day. If you’re an athlete yourself, however, you know the reality: the dream comes with an enormous amount of pressure, including self-imposed and external expectations, all of which can have a profound effect on your mental health.
While the pandemic put a spotlight on mental health in the general population, elite athletes of all kinds also struggle with mental health concerns, from Olympic hopefuls to NBA veterans. In fact, one Canadian study reported that 41.4% of athletes surveyed met the clinical criteria of either depression, moderate to severe anxiety, or an eating disorder. That’s compared with 19% of the Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada. Why is there such a difference?
“Athletes have the regular life stressors, but they also have these pressures, demands and expectations from everyone around them,” notes Brenley Shapiro, a sport psychology and performance consultant who works as a mental performance coach for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. “People are judging them, demanding things, expecting things from them all the time. And we often forget that at the end of the day, they really are just human, like everybody else.”
Breaking the stigma
In a world that focuses so heavily on athletic prowess, physical health has traditionally trumped mental health, but that attitude is slowly changing. Indeed, more athletes – from the NBA’s Kevin Love to the NHL’s Mark Borowiecki to tennis legend Serena Williams – are sharing their own stories of depression, anxiety and the intense pressure of playing in front of a crowd.
It doesn’t help that many athletes also find themselves on the road for a large portion of the year, either for competitions or away games, leaving them without their core support – usually their family. Combine that with trade deadlines, contract negotiations and the possibility of a career-ending injury, it’s no wonder the strain can spiral out of control for some players.
“There’s not enough open conversation and acceptance of the ability to come forward and say, ‘I’m struggling,’” adds Shapiro. “There’s a lot of work being done to try and break that. But it’s certainly been a powerful and dominant force in sport, that you have to be tough and resilient.”
Finances can also be a huge source of stress, says Luke Richardson, head coach of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and a former NHL player. Whether there’s pressure to support extended family or bad actors coming out of the woodwork to ask for investments into their new business idea, athletes can be financially vulnerable. There are countless stories of athletes going bankrupt, he adds. “I couldn't imagine the anxieties around having money, and then you don’t know where it went – whether it’s gone or you made mistakes,” he says. “There’s also the possibility of getting hurt and all of (what you’ve worked for) being gone. Those are some huge things that weigh on mental health.”
Elite athletes need help taking care of their psychological well-being, just like anyone else. Here are some strategies from the pros.
#1 Asking for help is not a weakness
One main challenge athletes face when speaking about mental health is the culture of silence – both in sports and society at large. Richardson knows this all too well. In 2010, he lost his 14-year-old daughter, Daron, to suicide.
“It was obviously a devastating blow to our family and friends,” he explains. “But it was so hidden that it was even more confusing for all of us to understand. There were no signs.”
As a coach, he says the easiest way to get athletes to take their mental health seriously is to equate it to their physical health. “If you have a broken leg, you’re going to go to the doctor to get it fixed. So if there’s something broken inside and you’re in trouble in your mind, seek help and get it fixed. It’s the same,” he says.
The Chicago Blackhawks have three professional mental health coaches on staff, one of whom is a licensed therapist, and Richardson tries to ensure players feel comfortable going to them. He also has an open-door policy himself. “You have to pay attention, build those relationships and make sure you create an environment where people are free to talk.”
#2 “Be where your feet are”
Many athletes find it hard to stop thinking about the mistakes they made, such as a missed goal or fumbled ball, says Shapiro. Players can be plagued by what-ifs, Richardson adds, especially when an injury could mean the end of a career, or the loss of a contract, putting their finances at risk. Shapiro uses the popular quote “Be where your feet are” with her clients to remind them to come back to the present. Reliving a mistake they made in the past or worrying about something that might happen in the future both contribute to anxiety.
It’s a short phrase you can write on a Post-it Note, she says, to keep by the front door or on the bathroom mirror that can help you get out of your own head, when your brain is in high gear.
“We always want to refocus back to the present moment, right here right now. You know, what is happening? What do I need to do about it? And, I’m going to stay in it. I’m going to accept it,” she explains. “If you’re in the dressing room before a game, then be in the dressing room. Why are you worried about how you’re going to play or making a mistake out there?”
#3 Know when to call it quits (on social media)
If you’re a pro athlete, it’s likely people are talking about you on social media. It might be fun to see what fans on Twitter have to say from time to time, but if you’re not careful, the online chatter can lead you on a downward spiral.
“Sometimes everything gets ramped up a little quicker on social media, in the sports world,” notes Richardson, who has seen people say everything imaginable about his team and his players. “It can be used in negative ways with bullying, and we can’t control it. You just have to recognize it and separate yourself from it, if social media is not working for you.”
#4 Progress over perfection
Both Shapiro and Richardson stress the importance of embracing failure as part of life, especially in sports. As nice as it would be to play a perfect game or earn a perfect score, nobody manages to do it all of the time. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, and being an athlete means you’re always learning and improving.
“We’re human and there are going to be things that aren’t perfect,” explains Richardson. “And while we want to be as perfect as we can in the craft that we do, it’s okay if we’re not tonight, we will try to be tomorrow.”
He notes that as a player with the Edmonton Oilers, during one road trip to the Tri-State area for several away games, their coach took them to a Broadway show. It turned out to be a teaching exercise for the team, and one that he brought into his own coaching, years later.
“He pointed out that even though it’s a different skill, they’re still entertainers and that’s what we are. And that’s what you’re supposed to do every night as a professional,” he adds. “Even if something goes wrong at the beginning of the show or the beginning of the game, you pick yourself up and keep going.”
What’s more, each time you embrace your mistakes and failures, you’re building your resilience that little bit more.
“If you want to push boundaries, and you want to hit goals and break barriers, then you’re going to have to struggle and fail along the way,” notes Shapiro. “Most people are too afraid to do that. And so we have to lean into difficulty, embrace the challenge and use our struggles to grow.”
Help is out there
Every elite athlete should create a plan they can follow if they start feeling like the pressure is no longer manageable. Identify people whom you trust to support you – whether that’s friends, teammates, family, a coach or a staff counsellor – and talk to them.
“Hopefully you can find someone that’s willing to listen and be that comfort for you because everybody needs that,” adds Richardson.
To learn more about how we work with athletes and coaches or to speak with an experienced BMO Private Wealth professional, contact us at Sports.Entertainment@bmo.com or visit bmo.com/athletewealth
Resources for further reading:
The Canadian Centre for Mental Health in Sport
Coaching Association of Canada
Canadian Olympic Committee
Brenley Shapiro | Sport Psychology
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