The Tokyo Olympics 2021 made headlines for all the right reasons. While the Olympics is a sporting event that reflects athletes from around the world acing in their respective niches, this year the spotlight was on mental health. Simone Biles dropped out of the team final and the women’s all-around competition. This not only highlighted the human side of these major sporting events but also helped people the world over understand that athletes too, like everyone else, have the pressure getting to them. Are athletes more prone to depression than other professions and why is this the case? Kunashni Parikh, a Clinical and Sports Psychologist speaks about the issue in detail.
Simone Biles’ exit: A starter for conversations about depression in athletes
While it has always been known that succeeding in sports can have people feeling the pressure to a degree where it gets unbearable, Simone Biles’ exit from the games was definitely a conversation starter for matters to be taken more seriously. The Team USA gymnast took to social media to explain why she was quitting the games, by putting out a post along with a video, saying “For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit, my mind & body are simply not in sync as you can see here. I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surfaces nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health.”
The video showed how the gymnast who has 6 Olympic medals under her belt found it difficult to perform the stunt and landed unevenly on the mat. The caption also read “No this was not happening before I left the USA. It randomly started happening after the prelims competition the VERY next morning. By that time NO alternate was not allowed to be placed in my position for you ‘know it alls’. We have 4 on a team for a reason. I chose to not continue team competition in jeopardizing losing a medal (of any colour) for the girls/US also for my own safety and health.”
This brings us to the bigger question of whether athletes are prone to mental health issues and what can be done.
What are the reasons why athletes go through depression?
Kunashni works with National and International athletes across various sports on Mental Health Counselling and Mental Training for Performance Enhancement. “In the whole training dynamic, in the gym, the arena, etc, the focus is laid on physical fitness but not mental skills. Some athletes are not even aware of psychology. With the physical training mental health training needs to come too. Contrary to popular belief, the absence of sickness does not mean good health. You need to feel well from within.”
She says that when it comes to mental health issues, anyone is prone to these. For athletes specifically, there are certain factors that act as triggers.
When athletes cannot get back into the game and see other players getting their hits, it sets in the feeling of inadequacy. Kunashni points out that while this isn’t true for all athletes, it does happen to some and can prove to be a major setback. Uncertainty and loss of confidence can cause trauma and mental health issues.
When athletes lose by small margins and cannot cope with it, depression sets in. They stop enjoying the small wins and the goals get bigger and if not achieved, these can prove to be major setbacks for the athlete.
The pandemic has left athletes feeling out of control, says this psychologist. These are the kind of people who love taking part in team activities, group dynamics are important to them and not being able to do these leaves them feeling lonely and isolated.
Athletes are human too and the issues that take place in their usual daily lives can hamper their mental health and affect the way they play the game. These issues if not addressed could be triggers for an athlete experiencing depression and anxiety, says Kunashni.
Why do athletes face performance anxiety?
For a lot of athletes, she points out, self-identity gets tied to the sport. Due to an injury when the athlete is unable to perform, or when their career ends, they do not know who they are anymore. “They do not see themselves as anything apart from who they are on the field and thus, being unable to perform leads to a low self-confidence and esteem.”
“When you start playing sports as a kid, you enjoy it. As you go through life and it becomes a profession, you lose the fun element and the child-like essence that made it special. It becomes more about achievement than about enjoyment. Flow is an important concept. Being one with what you are doing.” Kunashni Parikh
Sportspersons are constantly chasing after success and the sky is the limit. “They have such high self-expectations, that they tend to become critical. This is especially the case with elite athletes. They begin celebrating the big wins but forget about their day to day achievements. The guilt is tied to depression.”
How can therapy help athletes who face these self-identity problems?
Kunashni, when she sees a trigger, first identifies where it’s coming from. If the problems are off the field, such as in their personal life, their interpersonal relationships, etc. then the techniques that she follows are those that are done in usual therapy and counselling. However, if the problems are on the field and in their professional life regarding performance, the techniques followed are mental training, goal setting, and self-modulation.
In a field that is about competition, how do sportspersons ensure to stay away from envy?
For young athletes, healthy competition is okay, says Kunashni. “Athletes have to look at the competitive angle. For many, I have seen that being a sportsperson is a financial escape to move on to a better life. You have to respect the competitive nature of the sport. So even though it does become a rat race, ensure you have fun.”
Some ways for young athletes to avoid falling into jealousy or self-criticism, are:
- Becomes self-aware
- Start mental training along with physical
- Be aware of strengths and weaknesses
- Be honest with emotions
- Realistic with goals
- Clear with your values
The mental health of athletes is starting to be discussed on larger platforms and this is a start to getting more done about these issues.
Ms. Kunashni Parikh is a Clinical and Sport Psychologist with a background in Behavioural Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia, Canada. She works with National and International athletes across various sports on Mental Health Counselling and Mental Training for Performance Enhancement. She has been the Psychologist for Indian football powerhouse FC Goa for their National Soccer Camp in Collaboration with German Football Club RB Leipzig. She herself has been an athlete and has represented India as the Vice-Captain and Goalkeeper for the Junior India Women's Football Team at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Qualifiers in Jordan. She was also the Goalkeeper for the Vancouver United Football Club in Canada, and Goalkeeper and Captain of the Maharashtra State Team.