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The Unique Side of Mental Health in Elite Sport

From the outside looking in, it can be so easy for us, as the general public, to have a naive perception of the stress which comes with performing at the highest level in sport. This perception is not necessarily helped with athletes often masking their stresses or struggles throughout their career, only to speak about the extent to their struggle following retirement. The life of an elite is far from the luxurious one which we see, the money, the cars, and the fame. These individuals are among some of the most unique in the world, and along with this, comes masses of unique stressors which we in the general population will never experience.

These include, but are not limited to, the pressure to perform constantly and consistently, fear of failure, and their reduced social life due to training demands. Additionally, the mass media which surrounds sport at the highest level can have a considerable influence on one’s mental well-being. With elite level athletes being subject to so much media following and attention, coupled with the discrimination which athletes face from “fans” on a daily basis, it can be a scary thing to admit that you are struggling, due to the likelihood of backlash. It appears to be that, for the modern-day elite athlete (depending on their sport and the media surrounding it), every aspect of their life is under constant evaluation, scrutiny, and critique from the media. While it may seem absurd that this is an issue, there have been cases where elite athletes have reported to be taunted for various personal issues which they are dealing with.

While it may seem absurd that this is an issue, there have been cases where elite athletes have reported to be taunted for various personal issues which they are dealing with. An example of this, albeit maybe a unique one, is Cowdenbeath footballer David Cox who has openly spoke about how he was abused by fans and opposition players about his suicide attempts and his struggles with depression, and also how some former teammates viewed him differently after he went public with his story of suffering with depression and self-harm etc. Although this is a unique example in that Cox went public with what he was struggling with, whereas most would look to seek help privately, this case does echo the stigma around mental health in elite athletes, and why we do not hear of the struggles of most athletes until they have retired. athletic identity (the degree to which one identifies with their athletic role) has been one of the most extensively researched areas when discussing mental health in athletes and is often said to amplify other issues, no matter how minute they may be. It is undeniable that a sense of athletic identity is essential in the elite level of sport, because, at the end of the day, this is their career, and like any job, they are employed and expected to do their job. The danger though, comes when this becomes over emphasized and individuals see themselves as an athlete as opposed to what they really are, which is humans, who’s sporting identity is only a minor part of the person that they really are. What tends to happen, is people link their worth as a human being, to their sporting performances or achievements, and there are several notable instances in elite sport, which show the negative effects which this can have on an athlete’s mental well-being when this is taken too far. 

Subsequently, when an athletes’ performances are not met by their exceedingly high expectations, their self-worth as a human can become seriously threatened. An example of this is former undisputed UFC women’s world champion, Ronda Rousey, who, after dominating for three years, being the face of woman’s combat sport, and being hailed as the greatest female athlete of all time, lost her title. Following her defeat, she was quoted as saying “what am I anymore if I’m not this” and stated she considered suicide claiming she’s nothing anymore and that nobody would care about her following what had happened. This is just one of thousands of examples out there, but it shows how individuals can develop this extremely fragile sense of self-worth, resulting from years of such a one-dimensional identity. This realworld example further confirms the suggestion that a one-dimensional identity can increase an individual’s expectations for themselves to succeed leaving them constantly fighting to achieve/maintain high, and possibly unrealistic levels of performances. One of the most thought-provoking ideas regarding mental health in elite athletes is surrounding the diagnosis of mental health issues. It has been proposed that, due to the unique nature of these individuals and the unique circumstances which they find themselves in, we have yet to distinguish between a diagnosis for the general population versus elite athletes. The argument was presented that, the “normal” criteria for mental health conditions should not be applied to elite athletes, because they are not necessarily “normal” when compared with the general population. A specific example which looked at the physiological differences between elite athletes and the general population was laid out, stating that left ventricular hypertrophy is a cardiovascular disease, but the diagnosis is very different for the general population compared to some elite athletes (swimmers and cyclists experience this as a natural adaptation to their intense training). So, even though this cardiovascular disease is still acknowledged as a potential issue within elite athletes, although at a differing rate, an adjustment and distinction has been made regarding the elite athlete versus the general population. While there may still be some debate surrounding the diagnosis of mental health conditions with elite athletes, it is clear that these individuals are in a very unique position with unique stressors, and thus, a very real argument can be made for distinguishing between the general population and elite athletes' diagnosis.