Importance of Mental Health of Sportspersons
Mumbai, July 22, 2021
Mental health awareness in the field of sports, across the globe as well as in India, has not garnered as much attention and importance as it should. Any sports activity requires the athlete to be in a good physical and mental health condition. However, the mental health aspect of the sportsperson is most often not given as much importance as it should.
Recently, the captain of the Indian cricket team, Virat Kohli, who is considered one of the finest batsmen of the current times, revealed that he battled depression during a tour of England in 2014 and felt like the "loneliest person in the world". He mentioned that he was losing his confidence due to his bad performance and felt lonely even though he was surrounded by supportive people in his life. Professional help was needed, is what he emphasized on. He also mentions that if such mental health issues are not resolved or looked into, they can even destroy a person’s career.
However, there are many factors and barriers to seeking help when it comes to restoring an individual’s mental health. One of the many barriers to seeking help is a negative attitude towards mental health in general. In India, taking help or even expressing oneself with having issues with mental health is considered a sign of weakness. It is absolutely normal if you are injured physically while playing on the field and take treatment from a doctor.
However, it is considered equally abnormal or unusual if an athlete is experiencing performance anxiety, stress or depression. It is assumed that such issues must be handled on their own or that they just go away with the passing of time. The fear of consequences like not getting selected or how they will be perceived by their coaches and fellow sportspersons also stops them from seeking help.
Also, looking at the resources and infrastructure, there has been very little progress in delivering mental health care services in the majority low and middle-income countries. There are less number of trained professionals and a lack of understanding about the importance of mental health in public health leadership. Lack of knowledge and information about various mental health issues also brings about a challenge in the delivery of mental health care services. As a result, we need a robust mental health framework in place whereby the sportspersons can seek help without feeling ashamed.
A Mental Health Framework for Sportspersons
A comprehensive mental health framework in the field of sports will need a multi-disciplinary approach. Individually helping the sportsperson with counselling and clinical care management will definitely help but it will not be sufficient. In order to bring about a change, it will be important to analyse his/her experiences, the cultural and social background he/she comes from, and his/her coping mechanisms.
Along with the individual, it will also be important to involve the coaches, his/her teammates and his/her family members. They will need to be sensitized towards the athlete’s mental health issues and enable them to identify symptoms such as a sudden change in behaviour and mood swings. Encouraging them to seek help in the first place as they are the first person the athlete will confide in. Mental Health Literacy and Awareness programmes should be provided at the organizational level so that a culture of empathy and support is established.
A mental health framework will consist of various other aspects, mentioned below:
Mental Health Screening
Along with the routine physical health check-up, a mental health screening should also be a part of the framework. Such screening tools will help the athlete gain insight into his own emotions and behavioural patterns which will, in turn, improve his self–awareness skills. A timely screening during particular instances like an injury, before selection or after losing a match will go a long way in taking care of the sportsperson.
Prevention programmes should be provided for sportspersons who are found to be “at risk” of developing mental health issues. Other professionals in the field of sports like physiotherapists or trainers can be provided with additional training related to mental health in order to identify any noticeable change in behaviour. They can then immediately refer the person to a mental health professional and seek timely intervention. Confidentiality and privacy will need to be maintained strictly.
Early intervention will be required in cases where the athlete is finding it difficult to cope with certain life and sports-related situations. In such cases, a structured clinical intervention must be provided by the in-house clinical psychologist or sports psychologist along with pharmacotherapy.
Therefore, it is essential to have an-in house mental health professional for the team or even an individual sportsperson. Just like how a Sports Psychologist always travels with the Australian Cricket Team. In cases where an in-house psychologist is not available, they can then be referred outside to a mental health professional who has the appropriate knowledge and expertise in treating such clients. In today’s digital times, it is also possible to have such consultations online via phone or the internet.
Certain mental health disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Suicidality or Eating Disorders may require immediate and emergency care like hospitalization, particularly where there is a risk of harm to self or others. In such a scenario, it is crucial to have an Emergency Mental Health Plan implemented. Slowly and gradually, the athlete can then be prepared to return to the sport or training with the help of counselling and support from people.
Individual Development Programmes
Development programmes which are focused on each individual sportsperson can help identify his/her goals based on his/her strengths and weaknesses. Such programmes will impart the necessary life skills to achieve a balance in life and look at life beyond sports and competition. Involving former sportspersons or coaches who have gone through similar experiences of mental health issues can go a long way in sharing their knowledge, providing support and normalizing experiences of mental health concerns.
The Crucial Role of Media
The media plays an ever-important role in spreading awareness and normalizing experiences of mental health issues for sportspersons. Recently, Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis player, ranked No.1 by the Women’s Tennis Association, withdrew from the French Open and refused to do a press conference, to protect her mental health. She mentions that she suffers huge waves of anxiety by speaking to the media and finds it hurtful when the journalists question her ability on the field.
It is normal to experience feelings of sadness and anxiety after losing a match. However, such instances bring to light how the media needs to be more sensitive and empathetic towards the players when they are going through a rough patch.
Excellence in the field of sports is not just isolated to the talent and physical abilities of athletes but also how well-groomed and balanced they are emotionally and psychologically.
Players do not lack anything to achieve their aims and goals but they just need to be sensitized towards the importance of mental training as much as physical excellence and also being provided with a supportive and understanding environment. The onus lies with the government, society and all of us to support them unconditionally in all situations, whether it’s a win or a loss.
When the stigma attached to seeking help from a mental health professional subsides, only then will more people enter the field of sports as a career.
It is all the more important now in the time of the pandemic, to not only talk about goals, dreams and vision but also about thoughts, feelings and emotions. After all, this is what makes us human.