In this blog, Mr Shashank Tapikar - experienced sports management professional and participant of the 2nd edition of ELMS - ABF High Performance Leadership Program discusses the inherent psychological pressures of athletes in the limelight and the importance of addressing mental health issues that they experience.
Athletes are always considered to be a superior species. A stature similar to Superman and Wonder Woman is given to them. It is eminent, because of their athletic display, the adrenaline rush spectators feel as they showcase their power, skills, moves, shots, pointers. The euphoria of witnessing them get the winning goals and snatching victory in the last few seconds of the game is exhilarating beyond compare. It’s like our athletes create magic on the ground.
With the eruption of digital media, analytics, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality now everything is at the fingertips of a fan. One has to just google, open some website or digital platform, and have everything at your disposal. You know the ins & outs of your favourite team/player. Even their personal and family life is up for consumption in the digital space.
During this process, we tag them to be a perfectionist, hero, role model, demigod and list goes on. And when they make any mistake be it on or mostly off the field, then we bombard them, throw them under the bus with negative comments, tarnish their credentials, and destroy them on social media.
We humans are wired to commit mistakes, learn from them, and move on, but this at times is not applicable to athletes. In fact, they are pressured to be mentally superior because of their superior physical status.
We often tend to ignore the fact that Athletes are human too, and even they can make mistakes. They go through the same mental stress and face depression as any other human being. In fact, they are more vulnerable, because of societal pressure and the hero tag doesn’t allow them to reveal mental stress in public.
Athletes go through mental stress at every stage of their athletic career. A comparison has been made: NON-ATHLETE vs ATHLETE and the challenges – Indian Context
In their pursuit to conquer their dreams athletes knowingly or unknowingly suppress their trauma, which in the long-term has an adverse effect. Athletes tend to not seek support or help for mental health problems for various reasons.
Sports culture is considered a sign of masculine ideas, it values strength and mental toughness. This has caused a social stigma to develop in the mindsets of the athlete (elite & junior) community, which prevents them from discussing mental illness. They fear that it will be considered as a sign of weakness, which will affect their chances of selection at national or international competitions. They might lose support from their sponsors and endorsement deals. A label of failure or unsuccessful athlete will be added to their name. This unhealthy environment and culture cause many athletes to miss the bigger picture. Their lack of understanding about mental health and its potential influence on performance leads to regrettable consequences
To conclude, in the current scenario the stakeholders, the decision-makers in the sports ecosystem to address the issue and work on Athlete Mental Wellness.
Some points can be considered:
Design and develop a comprehensive framework to support, react, respond to the mental health needs of athletes, it must be done right at the beginning of an athletic career.
Encourage an environment for a growth mindset to mitigate athlete-sports-specific mental risk factor.
Create an athlete centered approach, encourage and motivate athletes to open up to such issues and raise the ticket. Early detection and intervention for mental health symptoms are essential in the sporting context.
Every quarter, sports related mental health program, conference and seminar should help in the HPC, Sports Academies and Sports Organization.
All relevant stakeholders who are attached to athletes should be inducted on the topic of mental health and wellbeing. Even parents and athlete should also be a part of such induction camps. It will help them to watch for early signs and symptoms of mental illness.
A healthy and sustainable environment can only be created when athletes feel comfortable and are able to ask for help, without the fear of negative consequences on their careers.
Recently the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical and Scientific Commission developed a toolkit. that is designed to make a difference to the mental health and lives of elite athletes around the world.
Beyond the glitz and glamour, if someone minutely observes the life of an athlete they will realize that it is more tough and challenging than a non-athlete. We tend to see what social media shows us, but there is a lot that goes into making an athlete. Yes, they are super humans in terms of sacrifices they have and have been making to bring laurels for the country. Yet, at the same time, they are as human as we are.