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What ails the athlete? Examining the everyday pressures of sporting superstars

Illustration of hand holding up trophy
Macrovector / Freepik

Case study / by Ufuoma Onemu

Recent research shows that some mental health issues are more common among athletes than the general public. But why? Ufuoma Onemu looks at some of the possible reasons.

Robert Enke was one of Germany’s most proficient footballers. Young, rich, famous, and on the way to being the national squad’s goalkeeper for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Enke was a man who seemingly had everything, at least in the eyes of the public.

But in 2009, at just 32 years old, he took his own life by walking into the tracks of an oncoming train.

Depression was the reason. Teresa, Robert Enke’s wife, revealed that Robert had suffered from depression for many years. He had kept it a secret to protect his career and for fears that his 8-month-old daughter would be taken away from him.

When we think about athletes just like Robert Enke, many words come to mind: elite, strong, confident, resilient, determined, gritty, and more similar words. Rarely do we think about them as regular people plagued by mental health problems. The result is that athletes’ mental health is often overlooked because people assume that only emotionally and mentally strong athletes would be able to deal with the rigors and pressures of training and competition.

This assumption has contributed to the little attention given to mental health in sports, unfortunately meaning that athletes have had to cope with mental health disorders in silence to avoid being viewed as weak.

But things are changing. In recent times, athletes have started speaking up about mental health issues and taking time away from competitions to get their mental state in check.

An increased risk

According to recent research, athletes don’t just deal with the same mental problems non-athletes do – they are actually more likely to develop mental health conditions in general.

Zoe Poucher, a graduate student at UToronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education explored the prevalence of common mental disorders among elite Canadian athletes. Her study revealed that 4 in 10 (41.4%) athletes training for Tokyo 2020 met guideline-defined criteria for anxiety, depression, and/or an eating disorder. This figure is 4x higher than the 10% prevalence rate seen among the general population in a 12-month period.

The breakdown for each mental health issue was as follows:

  • 31.7% of athletes had symptoms of depression

  • 18.8% reported symptoms of generalised anxiety: 12.9% showed moderate symptoms while 5.9% had severe symptoms.

  • 8.6% had symptoms indicative of an eating disorder.

What increases an athlete’s risk of developing a mental health issue?

So what actually is it that leads to a higher risk of developing a mental health issue among athletes? Here are just a few possible reasons:

  • Environment

The sporting world is intensely competitive. Athletes are faced with high expectations and placed under intense pressure and scrutiny at all times. The emphasis is on being the best and smashing targets and goals out of the park. Failing to meet these expectations can be shattering for athletes and even the smallest mistakes can result in global criticism from fans, coaches, and the media.

Robert Enke’s father reported that Enke developed anxiety while playing football in his youth. Because of his skill, his teammates were often older than he was, and he became afraid that he would be unable to keep up with them.

  • Stress

Stress is a common state experienced by people all over the world, but the competitive sports culture can increase stress to intense levels. Athletes cannot show any form of weakness and usually give in to their perfectionist tendencies. This leaves them constantly on edge to do better even when they are at their best.

  • Body image expectations

Sports like gymnastics, figure skating, and weightlifting require athletes to be a certain weight. Keeping their body at these standards can be difficult and athletes in these sports commonly suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, binge-eating, and bulimia.

In combat sports, for example, huge pressure is placed on an athlete to meet an agreed weight before their bout. Weight cutting in particular is a highly controversial practice, with tales of athletes going through extended workout and sauna sessions with very little hydration in order to drop weight very quickly.


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  • Having a sports injury

The risk of an athlete developing a mental health disorder increases if they have experienced several sports injuries, especially severe ones that could alter or end one’s career.

Other factors that might result in the development of mental health issues or maintain their presence include:

  • Performance failure – when athletes don’t perform as well as they should or as well as they believe they could

  • Training for extended periods

  • Constant media scrutiny and criticism

  • Retirement

  • Being a female athlete

  • Selection for a team

  • Low social support and spending extended periods of time away from home

A new era of openness

Athletes are just like you and me – living in a world where the idea of seeking help for mental health issues is still seen by some as a sign of weakness. In their case though, they are always subject to intense scrutiny and in a competitive world like theirs, any perceived weakness is hidden to avoid exploitation. Instead, athletes are usually encouraged to be strong and hide anything that may be considered a weakness.

But, through the willingness of top athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles to speak up about mental health issues, the conversation about mental health in sport is beginning to progress in the right direction. We are now beginning to talk about the often intense lifestyles of athletes and build a greater understanding and appreciation of what they go through to perform at the level they do. And it’s about time too.

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