Why Do Athletes Struggle with Mental Health?

Written by Olivia Arambula, LPC.

When you watch an athlete competing, you are watching a surface level representation of what that athlete is about. You yell and cheer at them to go faster, to not make dumb or frustrating decisions that you wouldn’t have made if you were playing. What you don’t consider is what that person is experiencing during a competition or even the days, weeks, or months leading up to that moment.  

Athletes must learn to hone their physical abilities as well as their mental capabilities. They are put under immense stress and pressure by themselves, their coaches, their teammates, and the spectators. The high pressure can be caused due to a fear of disappointment, failure, or unrealistic expectations. This stress and pressure to perform in a given moment creates a lot of anxiety and, depending on their mindset and performance, it can impact their self-esteem and feeling of worth as a person. 

Due to external, internal pressures, and high expectations, some athletes feel the need to excel and cope by any means necessary. This can manifest into severe behaviors such as eating disorders and substance abuse. The athlete’s health takes a backseat to trying to meet the next level.  

An athlete deals with more than the challenges that come from their sport. At the end of the day, they are people too with their own personal lives. They too can struggle with big life changes, depression, trauma, loss, relationships, and the list goes on. An athlete’s personal life can become intertwined with their athletic performance and have a good or bad impact on it. 

In summary, athletes are not exempt from struggling with life’s challenges or pressures. It is important for people to remember that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to watching professionals or even their loved ones competing. Athletes may be struggling with increased anxiety due to external and internal pressures and have an increased risk of maladaptive behaviors such as eating disorders and substance use as a way to cope with these pressures or as an attempt to meet extreme expectations.