Columnist discusses how to balance mental health and athletics.
BY GRETA MILLER, ’23.
Sports are a huge part of American culture. Fans love attending sporting events, watching athletes play and rooting for their teams. Athletes enjoy the competition, camaraderie and notoriety of playing on teams. Professional athletes, specifically, are revered for reaching the highest level of their sport, for developing an excellent physical condition and for earning a prosperous livelihood that much of our country desires. It might appear as though athletes just need to prove they can play to be successful, but there is another equally difficult component to sports––the ever-elusive, ever-changing mental game.
Managing one’s own thoughts, insecurities, and personal struggles at all times is difficult. Michael Phelps, the winner of 23 gold medals, is just one of the many athletes who has recently admitted to having struggled with anxiety and depression. After winning his last gold medal in 2016, he decided it was time to focus on his mental health. More recently, Simone Biles pulled out of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the middle of the gymnastics team final not because she could not perform, but because of the intense mental pressure of competing. We all have bad days, but athletes are expected to somehow remove life’s ups and downs from their thoughts and just compete.
Team dynamics, such as fitting in with teammates or coaches, is another hurdle that athletes must overcome. A great team has players who understand their respective contributions and is led by a coach who can bring the best out of every player. Sometimes athletes and their coaches may disagree on the game plan, the selection of players, or playing time, which can make it difficult to perform. Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback has experienced 13 years of a contentious relationship with his coach. Rodgers and the Packers coach, Mike McCarthy, had problems since Rodger’s draft night in 2005, when McCarthy passed Rodgers over during selection. Their original dislike for each other was later compounded by other disagreements regarding the offensive game plan and the drafting of additional quarterbacks during the season. Recently, Rodgers said he is thankful to have had some time in the off-season to focus on things that keep him in the right mindset.
In addition to internal and team/coach dynamic pressure, athletes must deal with pressure from the press and fans. While the media does provide exposure for athletes, it can be a distraction that hinders athletes’ abilities to remain focused on their game or an avenue for harmful commentary and criticism. Naomi Osaka, a four-time tennis Grand Slam champion, has recently been vocal about her struggles with the press. Osaka believes that athletes should not have to attend every press conference, and when athletes do not attend, they should not be asked why. Sometimes players are not well, and it should be acceptable to take a break from the press and the constant barrage of questions.
So why is there so much recent talk about athletes struggling with mental health? It has always been hard for athletes to consistently perform well. Managing personal struggles has always been hard; blending with teammates and coaches has always been hard; and dealing with the press and fans has always been hard. So why is there this new discussion? Maybe it is because today’s athletes have to face the intense scrutiny from the press and the brutal comments of fans on social media like no generation before them. Maybe it is because of the increase of insecurities, egos and jealousy in our culture. Or maybe it is simply because our society is now willing to talk about mental health in sports. The next step, though, must be if we can adjust what we are doing to each other because if not, some great athletes might start questioning if it is all worth it.