In sport, stigma is all too prevalent and is a barrier to supporting the mental welfare of the world’s top athletes. Throughout history, populations utilized heroes and Gods, among them athletes, for inspiration and guidance. Society constructed athletes into figures of perfection, and while role models play an important part in anyone’s development, it is equally important to remember that role models are people too.
One can understand the crushing blow to a child or even an adult when they discover the person they believe to be the epitome of human excellence faces very human challenges too— it can feel as if “Wow, if my idol struggles, there’s no hope for me.” Yet, is your idol not more inspiring if he or she struggles, and yet continues to win national championships?
To overcome stigma, I believe we must deconstruct the foundation on which stigma is built. If we negate the fallacies spread overtime through better education regarding the history, science statistics and reality of mental wellness and improve the industry’s communication skills in a way that rebrands mental wellness as a necessity rather than taboo, we can do wonders to not only overcome stigma, but take athletic performance to its true peak.
To counter misconceptions, let us review the basic history, science, statistics and the reality of mental wellness.
History: Historically, mental wellness issues are not new. People struggled and suffered for centuries, if not millenia. With wars, plagues and recessions, there were and are plenty of reasons to feel bad. However, the world of mental health can seem new because it only recently entered society’s lexicon.
Yet, if we consult the past, we learn some of society’s greatest contributors suffered from mental challenges. Sir Issac Newton, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln and the Queen herself, Beyonce suffered emotionally. BEYONCE! If we look at athletes who struggle with their emotional welfare we list off greats like Serena Williams, Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, Clark Carlisle, and potential future president of the United States, Dwayne “The Rock,” Johnson. (Apparently, 46% of Americans would vote The Rock into the White House).
Society misidentified those struggling with their mental wellness as weak, yet history says otherwise. I feel that anyone winning gold medals, Grand Slam titles and headlining Coachella while also fighting an internal battle of their own is an exemplary example of strength. Abraham Lincoln ended a civil war while simultaneously battling depression. That is not weakness. That is the urban dictionary definition of badass! (Or so I feel).
Science: Research shows athletes struggling with anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress, substance abuse and eating disorders are unable to perform at their elite level.
Most mental challenges come with physical ailments including malnutrition, loss of appetite, increase in appetite, extreme weight loss, extreme weight gain, insomnia, panic attacks and fatigue. These symptoms increase an athletes risk for injury as bone density and organ function are compromised and reduce an athletes ability to physically perform at their peak.
Mental challenges not only impact physical function — they can impede cognition too.When an athlete is 25m from the finish line, the point in a race where the body needs mental encouragement, an athlete may feel unable to think “I can do it!” Traumatic memories can trigger flashbacks that alter athletes’ decision-making and push them from a winning mentality into survival mode, even if there is no credible threat in front of them.
That someone, somewhere who decided to make someone who felt bad feel worse about feeling bad may never have thought of mental wellness in relation to a physical challenge.
When we break a leg, we rest and are (hopefully) prescribed pain medication. That is more or less the same treatment plan for depression — rest and perhaps take medicine.
A diabetic takes insulin to manage his glucose levels, yet we judge when someone with post traumatic stress takes an SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to manage her serotonin levels. Why? Probably because mental challenges are invisible injuries. Even though we cannot see anxiety, like a wound or a fracture, statistics show mental wellness challenges are in fact real.
Statistics: I shared multiple general and sport stats in my first article in this series, so today I’ve chosen my top five.
38% of international elite footballers were diagnosed with anxiety or depression in 2020
1 in 4 Americans over 18 will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder
3.5 million Americans have Post Traumatic Stress; women make up the majority
The leading cause of Post Traumatic Stress in the US is rape (think about this stat in relation to USA Gymnastics)
33% of college athletes in the US reported symptoms of mental health disorders
Anxiety and depression are most common in 18-25 year-olds (elite athlete age)
If 25 percent of a country’s entire population struggles and more than a third of elite footballers were properly diagnosed, why are there still people out there claiming mental health issues to be a figment of the imagination?
Reality: When we learn someone we idolize struggles, acceptance can be hard, but alas, it is time to be educated on and accept reality. Life is not all puppies and rainbows.
At the initial stage of my recovery, I complained to my therapists that I wanted to feel better. They responded, “Ashley, you have very few reasons to feel happy right now.” Doctors were right, the appropriate response to my trauma was not joy or happiness, but rather anger, sadness and pain.
Athletes endure long stints away from home, pressure from just about everyone they know, compete against their friends, are traded to play with their long-time nemesis, exert their bodies to levels almost beyond mortality, restrict diets and are expected to show up every day with a smile on their face.
This is an unrealistic request of anyone, especially athletes. Over decades, society instilled The Pedestal Mindset in sport. I referenced this in last week’s article (link), but this mindset refers to how fans, parents, coaches, friends, sponsors, owners and even fellow teammates place athletes on top of a pedestal with a belief that athletes are capable of anything or are perfect.
Athletes fear showing any sign of struggle because they are expected not to struggle. Many athletes who attempt to express a need for help are told “You’re making millions, you’ll be fine!” “The girls love you, what do you have to complain about?” “You travel the world, you win gold medals!”
Ever heard the phrase “It’s lonely at the top.” The Pedestal Mindset isolates athletes from the support they need by reinforcing the idea that it is not OK for an athlete to not be OK or that athletes do not have valid reasons to feel bad because they can lead such privileged lives.
Athletes are humans too and as much as fans, owners, coaches etc need to remember that, so too do the athletes. Moreover, reminding athletes that their biggest supporters understand they are human can also go a long way.
Knowledge is power and when we are better educated about mental wellness, the subject matter becomes less taboo and more just a part of life.
Now that I (hopefully) crumbled the foundation on which stigma was built, I hope we can create a new belief system around mental wellness through improved communication.
To rebrand mental wellness for the normal life experience that it truly is, I believe we must improve our ability to communicate through empathy, supportive language, improved listening skills and knowing our audience so that we may offer validation and compassion to those struggling rather than judgement.
Empathy: Stigma causes shame, and the cure for shame, according to shame guru Brene Brown, is vulnerability.
But to be vulnerable, we need to believe people around us can empathize. Empathy does not mean you need to have the exact same experience of someone struggling, just that you can channel an experience that resulted in similar emotions. When you can put yourself in someone’s emotional shoes, it makes it easier to use language that will support someone rather than tear them down.
Language: In pre-school I can remember my teacher asking the class to recite “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and I am here to call bullshit.
What we say and how we say things matter.
When someone trusts you to be their confidant, it is now your responsibility to validate their experience and nothing else. In the wellness industry, we do not aim to make someone feel better or fix their problems, but rather avoid making them feel worse and show them we believe their problems are real.
We need to pay attention to our language around mental wellness. Avoiding statements like “Get over it,” “You’ll be fine,” or saying “I had that problem too and I turned out just fine,” is a good start. Better yet, validating their experience by stating, “That sounds really hard,” or “Wow, thank you for sharing with me. What can I do to help?” will not only show you care, but demonstrate your belief in their struggle, which is step one to asking for help.
Self-awareness in what we say is important, but so too is our ability to listen.
Listening: If an athlete comes to a coach to say, “Coach, I am having a tough time” there is one scenario that can help the industry overcome stigma and another that enforces it.
Situation 1: The coach sits quietly, validates the athletes experiences and feelings and offers resources.
Situation 2: The coach sits quietly while his or her mind spins about how they might lose the match this weekend, starts thinking about substituting the player out and immediately goes to a team manager or owner to bring attention to this new “problem.”
A coach (or whomever) that truly listens to a player and chooses their words wisely can encourage a player to get the help they need to get back on their A-Game faster rather than instill fear of being looked at as a liability.
Speaking of liabilities, when we discuss mental wellness in the sport industry, it is very important to know one’s audience.
Know Your Audience: When I talk about mental wellness with athletes, I utilize it as an impetus to improve performance. When I talk about mental wellness with owners or industry leaders, I relate its importance to the bottom line.
Poor communication wages war, divorce and a myriad of issues that could otherwise be avoided. When we empathize, understand the power of our words, listen and relate to our audience, we can instill the truth that mental challenges are part of the human experience, and offer compassion to encourage the person struggling to seek help.
In sum, stigma must be dismantled because it discourages players (and anyone struggling) from asking for help. The fear of being deemed a social pariah, weak or crazy, just worsens the problem. To do so I feel we need to deconstruct the foundation on which stigma is built rather than keep talking about stigma. When we are educated, we are able to demystify the world of mental wellness and brand it correctly for what it is: a normal part of the human experience and there is no stigma in something that is a part of everyday life in sport or elsewhere
Stay tuned for next week’s article: “The Winning Mentality”