Why You Shouldn't Be Shocked by Mental Health Challenges in Athletes

In the last decade the news has been flooded with stories about mental health challenges among athletes. It’s the shock heard ‘round the world. Athletes are so tough. They have everything. They can do anything. How are they suffering from mental challenges? Aren’t they the best of the best? How is this possible?

Let’s be very clear, what you see externally doesn’t always match what’s going on internally. Athletes are people too. They have just as many doubts, fears, worries, and insecurities as the next “average joe”. But athletes are readily on display, particularly in this day and age. If you told me 20 years ago, I’d be able to personally message Joe Burrow, Katie Ledecky, or Simone Biles I would have said, “yeah … ok!” But here we are. Everything and everyone is accessible. Regardless if they respond, they’re accessible. And that just exacerbates the challenges that were already happening well before social media was even a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eyes.

But we don’t even have to go to the G.O.A.Ts to see why mental health is a pandemic in and of itself among athletes. Here’s an example of an ‘average joe’ athlete and the challenges faced for twenty years.

The School Schedule

AP Physics, AP Calculus, Honors English, Honors History, Psychology, and World Religions. Monday through Friday every week for 10 months. At least four hours of homework every night to ensure it was learned and mastered. 

The Sports Schedule

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: 4:15A alarm to shove at least something in your mouth and get to practice by 5A with a 30 minute drive. Practice from 5:15-6:45A. Clean up in the sink because there’s no running water in the showers. Leave by 7A at the very latest to get to school by 7:45A because traffic is much heavier on the way home. On occasion, stop by the house before getting to school because you forgot breakfast and there’s absolutely no way you’ll make it to 11:45 lunch and/or you forgot to pack for afternoon practice. Also on occasion, get stuck in traffic and haul ass from the parking lot to school to avoid a tardy and have extra work for “lack of responsibility”. 

Sit through seven hours of honors and AP classes fighting to stay awake while meeting participation and presence requirements in each class. Be released at 2:45P to sit in school traffic until 3P, which requires you to drive straight to practice to make it there by 3:45P (with a 30 minute drive of course).

Practice from 3:45-7:15P. Finish 20-30 minutes of dryland before getting changed and heading home with another 30 minute drive. Shove food in your mouth as quickly as possible before starting your four hours of homework. 

Pray to God you finish before midnight to get up at 6:45A the next morning, and if you don’t you just say, ‘f**k it” and go to bed. Tuesdays and Thursdays don’t require morning practice, but they do require an hour in the weight room following the 3:45-7:15P practice. 

Come Saturday morning, hop out of bed at 7:15A because you want as much sleep as possible before driving 30 minutes to make it to 8A practice. Get your ass kicked for 2.5 hours and head home to eat and then sleep in the hopes of having enough energy for some sort of social life on Saturday night. Then on Sunday afternoon, head back to practice for a “light” two hour session. Let’s not forget, the weekend’s homework has to be squeezed in there too. 

Why not just skip practice? Fair question. With this much on someone’s plate who wouldn’t tap out and say, “not today.” Well when you’re on one of the top teams in the state and you’re training to make specific cuts. Not showing up is not an option. 

This doesn’t include meets every other weekend that lasted all three days, starting on Friday afternoon in cities 2-3 hours away. Due to your talent, you have morning and evening sessions on both Saturday and Sunday. And if your event was late in the line up, you may not get home until 9P on Sunday night. Homework’s required somewhere in there too.

And this is just high school …

The College School Schedule

Congratulations! You received a full ride based on academic and athletic performance in high school. As an added award, you’ll be placed in the Honors Program. In order to keep your academic scholarships you must maintain 15 credit hours per semester and a minimum of 3.3 GPA. 

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: US Government 401 9-9:50, US Constitution 403 at 10-10:50, International Political Theory at 11-11:50

Monday Night: Accounting 201 5:30-7:30 

Tuesday and Thursday: Politics in Film, Honors Class 9-11

The College Sports Schedule

Now things are a bit trickier. The sports schedule is set. You have to figure out how to make your class schedule work within your major AND to meet the academic requirements AND to make it to practice every day.

Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 5:15A alarm to make it to 6A practice, and that could mean walking 10 minutes in freezing weather to get to the facility. Practice from 6-8A. Maybe take a shower, maybe not. Eat in the cafe, talk to some teammates, and head to class by 8:45. Thank God this is college, no “lack of responsibility” consequences for tardiness. 

Like clockwork, start to fall asleep around 9:25 mid note-taking. Come to around 9:45 and have absolutely no idea what you were trying to take notes on because your hand trailed off mid-sentence and you can’t ask the professor what he said 20 minutes ago. Pack your bag and head to the next class. Hope you can piece all of your notes together come exam time.

Thank God you got that mini nap to make it through the next two classes. Head home around noon for an hour nap … at minimum. Eat a little something when you wake up and head out the door for practice from 2-4P. Get your ass kicked for two hours, shower because at this point it’s necessary, grab food at the cafe again and head to 5:30 class on the other side of campus. 

Thankfully you don’t have morning practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so you get to sleep until 8A before heading to class at 9. Grab some food and head to the practice facility around 11:30-12 because you have to hit the weight room from 1-1:45. Immediately head to practice from 2-4 and see what you're made of after lifting.

Sit in the cafe for 30-45 minutes just to unwind and/or because you can’t move and just need some time to let the lactic acid settle. Find some food, maybe watch TV. Do a little homework for 30 minutes and finally get to sleep around 11P. 

Maybe interrupt the schedule on Thursday night for some fun. After all, you’re in college. But that means you’re heading to practice at 5:30A on Friday in a less than ideal state. And if you don’t interrupt the pattern on Thursday night, there’s a good chance you interrupt it on Friday night, which makes the three hour practice on Saturday morning absolutely torturous. If you were really disciplined all week then that meant Saturday night was your night to shine, and you went all out!

There’s no mention of team meetings and films that need to be watched, but rest assured they’re sprinkled in every week. There’s also no mention of hanging out in the athletic training room for ice and or treatment, but add an average of two hours per week at minimum for that as well. 

Oh! And again, you’re on scholarship. There’s no missing practice. This is your job and there are no make up days or alternative practice schedules.There were also meets to attend. Long story long, add another 4-10 hours in a week depending on if it were home or away (and that’s in a conference where every school is within driving distance).

Does It Make Sense Now?

Hi, I’m Lauren and this was my life for eight years. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Was it a lot? Uhhh ya think?!?!? 

This isn’t to say that athletes have it the worst or that non-athletes don’t have just as hectic schedules. It’s to provide a look behind the scenes of what really goes on in an athlete’s world. And remember, I’m no G.O.A.T. Multiply this by 10 for those at higher levels than me. 

This is enough to make cracks in any human being no matter how “tough” they are. I like to think I’m one of the toughest people I know, but you better believe I cracked SEVERAL times. And the message I consistently received was, “You’ve got to find a way through this. Come back tomorrow with a stronger attitude.” While I believe every coach I had meant well this wasn’t helpful. Telling someone to “get over it,” “move on,” “you’re stronger than this,” makes it worse. Let me repeat that, makes it worse

This is where the idea that it’s a “weakness” to speak up or seek help comes from. Athletes are constantly reminded they’re tough, and understandably so, because they are. But not everyone is tough with everything every time. When you’re told you’re tough and you're not feeling it, shame, guilt, and embarrassment all settle in only compounding the problem. You start to think, “Well why can’t I handle this? If I’m so tough, why is this so hard?” Then the shoulds creep in and the mental hole gets deeper and darker making it that much harder to escape. Without proper support the thoughts and emotions aren’t effectively dealt with; they’re just pushed down because another option can’t be seen. The next time they come up, they feel even stronger and the hole gets even deeper and darker. Until one day that’s all you can see, that’s all you can feel and you start to think there is only one final option. 

I never made it that far, but a teammate did. Thankfully she was unsuccessful. I chose to speak up, but not to a professional because that option was never presented to me. Of course mental health professionals existed, but they weren’t ever a topic of conversation. I spoke to my parents, my sisters, and my teammates. One of my greatest gifts is getting stuff out of my head and off my heart. I love to be vulnerable because it’s a release, but not everyone sees it that way; particularly other athletes. Vulnerability allows others to see in and that could mean a reduction in competitive advantage. “Never let them see you cry.” 

It’s Time to Act

This is a pandemic in and of itself. It is time to act. It is time to give it attention. It is time to get the mental burden off of athlete’s minds and hearts. It is time to seek help. 

Athletes: There are resources available to you. If your coaches, parents, or anyone else in your inner circle isn’t mentioning it, speak up. Get loud. Ask. And if for some reason it’s even unbearable to ask for help in your inner circle, then channel the strength you bring to every practice and search the internet for a neutral party. Transfer that grit and determination to getting help for your mind. As Kevin Love says, “nothing haunts you more than the things you don’t say.”

Coaches: Know what resources are available to your athletes. Expand your network by connecting to every modality that supports mental health: psychology, psychiatry, therapist, mental conditioning and mindset coaches. Seek your own support. Athletes are looking for something more than your technical knowledge. They want a relationship. They want deeper support even if they can’t say it. Work on yourself so you can be there for them.

Parents: Communicate with your athletes. Asking questions is much more effective than telling and pontificating. No one wants to be spoken to, they want to be spoken with. Allow your athlete(s) the time and space to tell you what’s going on with them vs. assuming you know. This works well if you’re a former athlete or you don’t have an athletic bone in your body. Your athlete is human. You can relate to that. And if you’re having your own challenges, seek your own support. There are coaches, therapists, and other mental health professionals that want to give you the time and space to be there for yourself so you can be there for your athletes. 

Stop the Stigma

Athletes are tough, but they’re not superhuman. They suffer in silence just as much, if not more, than others simply because the expectation to be ironclad never goes away. Grace, empathy, and encouragement to seek help are extremely important and effective. Several studies cite access to alternative mental health solutions as the key to combating this trend. They are available. Stop the Stigma. Speak up. 

 

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