14 Days of Love Day 12: The Importance of Mental Health in Sports

Valentina Caceres, Sports Editor/Multimedia Editor

Athletes are often viewed as superhumans, with their ability to constantly push themselves to new limits to hone and strengthen their skills and conquer the game. When an athlete suffers a physical injury, every resource possible provides them help to quickly heal and return to the sport good as new. However, coaches and staff rarely take the mental wellbeing of athletes into consideration.

“People look at athletes as fit and able people, but what they don’t realize is that off the field or court, they have to play a whole different game, just like everyone else…For some of us it’s mental health issues,” junior and varsity soccer player Antonella Paz said. 

According to Athletes for Hope, 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental illness. Similarly, 33% of college athletes are affected, and only 10% seek help. For decades, people quickly dismissed any signs of mental illness in athletes, instead regarding them as nothing but signs of weakness.

The winning mentality is ingrained in athletes’ heads, and anyone showing anything that could be perceived as “weakness” risked criticism and, at worst, replacement by someone who was “stronger” or had the right mentality. The lack of concern and attention surrounding mental health caused this stigma.

“As a coach, we dwell on the physical, and winning, and losing, and our X and Os…We probably have to pay more attention to that,” football and basketball coach Donnie Martin said. 

Growing awareness of the issue has slowly helped break the stigma of mental health in sports, creating a safer and more welcoming environment for athletes struggling with mental illness. In 2018, American basketball player Kevin Love opened up about his experience with mental health as an athlete in his letter in The Players’ Tribune, and has been a strong advocate for mental health awareness in sports ever since. Also a leader in this movement, swimmer Michael Phelps has talked about his own struggles, showing that even the best athletes struggle with their mental health.

Creating a support system for high school athletes is especially crucial; 70% of teens reported anxiety and depression as a major issue within their age group, a number even more alarming amongst student athletes, the group more prone to mental illness with emotional stress and physical injuries. 

High schools can look at college athletic programs as a guide on how to ensure the mental health of student athletes. Most notable, the NCAA has been working to improve the mental health of college athletes. Appointed as the organization’s chief medical officer in 2013, Brian Hainline almost immediately created a mental health task force consisting of scientists, experts, clinicians and coaches, to name a few; the NCAA now provides athletes, coaches and parents with all the support and information needed.

“We just have to get more information out to the coaches so that we can get the information out to our athletes,” Martin said.

The stigma surrounding mental health is already breaking right here at Palmetto. Paz has had to face illnesses such as borderline personality disorder and bulimia, all while playing on the varsity soccer team and focusing on her academics. Support from her coaches makes a huge difference in her mental health journey.

“When my mental health issues began I wasn’t able to even play sports, but once I was a little more recovered I got back into it. After my first few practices I was starting to have problems again so I opened up to my soccer coach about it,” Paz said. “I was scared but he was so accepting and he told me my mental health is always first and he supported me through the whole season.”

With mental health awareness among athletes becoming more prevalent and the number of resources increasing by the minute, coaches and staff will finally create an environment where the mental wellbeing of their athletes comes first, and they can play to their best of their abilities, with all the support and care they could need.