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Student Athletes and Mental Health

Recently Naomi Osaka, worldwide second-ranked women’s tennis player, decided that she would not be participating in the French Open press conferences for the sake of her mental health. Despite facing fines from the organization, Naomi Osaka’s choice to respect her mental health resonated with players worldwide. It also kickstarted a more significant discussion about athlete’s mental health: Is enough being done to ensure athletes’ mental wellbeing from student to pro?


A quick note- this post is meant as an educational and informational resource only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional and never disregard professional advice or delay it due to this article. If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis, call 911 immediately. For free resources, visit The National Suicide Prevention website or call their toll-free hotline, 800-273-8255. They are available 24/7 and can connect to local centers to provide crisis services.

What is Mental Health?

According to MentalHealth.gov, mental health incorporates aspects of emotional, physical, and social wellbeing. Life experiences, biological factors, and family history can all contribute to mental health problems.

Common Mental Health Issues Faced by Student-Athletes

Unfortunately, mental health issues are common in the United States. The 2019 National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) survey reported that over 59.1 million or 1 out of 5 adults live with mental illness. Is that number much better for children? Sadly, no. The AAFP found that 1 in 6 children under the age of 17 has a mental illness. 

Now that we know a large population of children is experiencing these problems, it’s important to acknowledge the mental toughness stigma surrounding sports, making mental health issues difficult to spot. Additionally, due to the child’s age or life circumstances, they may not even be aware that they are experiencing problems. As a parent, guardian, or coach, you must open communication with the child to ensure they feel safe disclosing their issues. It is then up to you to get them the appropriate support. 

That being said, let’s take a closer look at the most common disorders student-athletes face. To do so, we turn to the Sports Science Institutes study Mind, Body and Sport: The psychiatrist perspective, specifically “The Psychiatrist Perspective” by Todd Stull, M.D. (p. 21-23). He lists Anxiety, Mood, Personality, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Eating disorders as the top 5 disorders this group faces.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are prevalent with student-athletes, whether that be performance or injury-related. Dr. Todd Stull, a board-certified psychiatrist, explains that the most frequent representation of anxiety symptoms are worrying, obsession, feeling overwhelmed, and being stressed.

Mood Disorders

Dr. Stull lists the most common mood disorders as include major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, among others, with depression being the most common. Cleveland Clinic recommends keeping an eye out for changes in eating, sleeping, mood, and energy levels as well as behavioral problems at school, lacking interest in fun activities, and feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Personality Disorders

The Psychiatrist Perspective depicts traits of personality disorders as perfectionism, seeking external validation, and narcissism. Those with personality disorders also generally have compulsivity and interpersonal relationship problems along with harmful coping skills.

ADHD

NIH clarifies ADHD as a disorder that generally presents as problems with focusing and sustained attention. A general review published in the Clinical Journal Sports Medicine, “Considerations in the Care of Athletes With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” postulated that sports might positively benefit these students; however, do not ignore symptoms in favor of playing sports.

Eating Disorders

Dr. Stull explains that eating disorders can appear in many shapes and forms, but all focus on body image and the student’s relationship with food. Hoarding food, binge eating, purging, and extreme dieting are signs that there may be a problem. 

For the full list of common mental health challenges faced by student-athletes, check out Sports Science Institutes study Mind, Body and Sport: The psychiatrist perspective.

Spotting Mental Health Problems

Before we get into some at-home mindfulness techniques that may help relieve some anxiety and stress, we want to emphasize the importance of seeking professional help. Disorders are not always easy to spot, especially if you aren’t looking for them. Some may even choose to try and actively hide that something is wrong. Trust doesn’t happen overnight, so begin building a healthy report with the young person as early as possible. If you see something worrying, be sure to ask them if they are okay and reassure them that you are there to listen or help. And remember, professional assistance is within reach if needed. To begin, speak with the school and check out Mental Health America’s resources.

Helping Your Student-Athlete

Even if the student-athlete doesn’t exhibit symptoms of a disorder, chances are they will experience some level of anxiety or even depression during their school years. Balancing school, sports, and social life while trying to figure out who you are is inherently stressful! Beyond getting professional help, some techniques that help the students better understand and work through their emotions include deep breathing, journaling, and meditation. 

Deep Breathing

Deep or mindful breathing techniques are a great way to reduce stress and are especially helpful before a game. For deep breathing, have them slow down and focus on their breath and body. They should feel their stomach rising as they breathe in and falling as they breathe out. Incorporating timed breathing can also be beneficial if they are struggling to remain focused. One of the most common timed breathing techniques is 4-7-8. To do this, breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and breathe out for 8.

Journaling

Journaling is great for processing feelings and authentically expressing oneself. They can write down their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams without the fear of being judged. The biggest challenge with journaling is to remain consistent, so try to incorporate journaling time into your and the student’s everyday routine.

Meditation

The benefits of meditation are incredible. They range from stress and anxiety reduction to helping lengthen attention spans. There are many forms of meditation to practice, but here are a few of our favorites. 

  1. Loving-Kindness Meditation: This meditation is a radical act of self-care and promotes self-compassion and care for others. 
  2. Movement Meditation: The best part about meditation is that it doesn’t have to be done while sitting still. T’ai Chi or Yoga are common ways to practice it. 
  3. Guided Visualization Meditation: During this meditation practice, a person or video leads you through a series of mental images and emotions. 

Whether in preparation for the big game or a big test, these simple activities may help with stress management, increase happiness, and improve resilience.

Meditation

One of the most significant benefits of TLL is our Facebook community. It was designed to connect student-athletes. It is a safe space to share their own experiences, struggles, triumphs, and goals while motivating them to be their very best. If your student-athlete needs a group of people who understand their struggles, this may be a fantastic opportunity for them to find like-minded friends. Sign up now for access.

Reference List

In order of appearance.

Martin, J. (2021, May 27). Naomi Osaka says she won’t do press conferences during the French Open. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/05/26/tennis/naomi-osaka-no-press-conferences-at-french-open-spt-intl/index.html. 

What Is Mental Health? What Is Mental Health? | MentalHealth.gov. (n.d.). https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Mental Illness. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20there%20were%20an%20estimated%2013.1%20million%20adults%20aged,%25)%20than%20males%20(3.9%25).

Devitt, M. (2019). Study: One in Six U.S. Children Has a Mental Illness. AAFP Home. https://www.aafp.org/news/health-of-the-public/20190318childmentalillness.html. 

 

Mind, Body and Sport – Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness, Dr. Strull, P.21-23. 2014

Stull, T. (2014). The Psychiatrist Perspective. Mind, Body and Sport – Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness, 21–23. https://doi.org/# 978-1-4951-3175-2 

Depression in Children: Symptoms, Suicide Signs & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. (2020). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14938-depression-in-children.

 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Basics. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd-the-basics/.

 

Pujalte, G. G. A., & Maynard, J. R. (2019). Considerations in the Care of Athletes With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(3), 245–256. https://doi.org/10.1097/JSM.0000000000000508

Fletcher, J. (2019). 4-7-8 breathing: How it works, benefits, and uses. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324417

Thorpe, M. (2020, October 27). 12 Benefits of Meditation. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation.

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