Recently read about Glenn Maxwell, the Australian cricketing all rounder, taking indefinite break due to mental health issues. And this news has been taken so well by all in the fraternity. It is seen that the number of players especially elite players going through mental health issues is on rise and more so before important events such as Olympics, World Cups, World Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games etc. One study of 50 swimmers competing for positions in Canada’s Olympic and World Championship teams found that before competition 68% of them met the criteria for a major depressive episode.
Mental Health is not really well accepted by our society as yet. Ignorance or lack of education regarding mental health and its causes and treatment could be claimed as the main reason.
Mental health includes emotional, psychological and social well being. It affects how people think, feel and act. It also helps determine how people handle stress, how they relate to others and make choices (mentalhealth.gov). When people experience emotional upheaval, it impacts their mental health and social life. Almost all people experience this at some point of time in their life.
However, mental health (illness) in sports is considered to be a taboo. One of the myths surrounding this is players are considered to be strong and untouched by mental health issues. Secondly, elite players are financially so well paid that they should always be happy. But these are exactly the reasons and many more which cause mental health issues in players. Though mental health issues are experienced by almost all, in sports these could be a little more due to pressure of internal / external expectations, fear of damaging their own social image, fear of failure, maintenance of their status, lack of alternative option to fall back on, lack of hobbies or other interest areas, lack of awareness in terms of rest and recovery (mental as well as physical) during their sporting days etc.
Why players refuse to come to terms with mental health issues:
Many players ignore the early signs of stress, pressure and force themselves to play which could be to avoid criticism from coaches, co-players, families etc. The players may also feel that seeking help for mental health problems could make them appear ‘weak’ and this could result in end of their career. Sometimes, even their self-perception as superior can prevent them from seeking help.
But whatever, may be the reason, the stigma around mental health issues needs to be addressed and corrected from both a general societal perspective and from the perspective of the player themselves.
Prevention better than cure:
Following interventions would help reduce the percentage of mental health issues in players to a great extent.
1] Sensitize/ educate players, coaches, support staff regarding mental health from the grass root level. Awareness of it will reduce stigmatization and increase acceptance. Creating manuals regarding mental health for sports is a good idea to spread the message about mental health and how it could be prevented and treated.
2] Recognising early signs or symptoms could help in dealing with the issue.
3] Conducting standardised screening tests to identify at-risk players as well as conducting needs analysis, personality assessments etc. by professionals. This could be done to identify underlying mild subclinical issues before they become mental illnesses.
4] Promote communication skills, group activities within the teams to avoid phone addiction and social media addiction amongst players.
5] Bottled up emotions and frustrations may later lead to mental health issues. Hence discussing and resolving the issues with the help of a psychologist or therapist is recommended.
6] Sensitizing parents about the negative impact on the players in case of parents who are high-achievers or over bearing.
7] Encouraging players to take breaks for rest and recovery will avoid burn out stage to occur at an early stage.
8] Pursue hobbies / interests as and when players get time to help them increase focus and concentration on their primary sport.
9] Scrapping the formula of performance= only winning and converting it to performance=reaching one’s own level of potential.
As a sports psychologist, I truly appreciate the way Australian coach, players and support staff have shown great support and understanding towards Glenn Maxwell which in itself is a good enough start for him to take necessary steps towards handling his mental health and to make a remarkable comeback.
Sr. Sports Psychologist