Some of the more common mental health challenges experienced by varsity athletes include the following:
Often, athletes try to be “perfect” when they perform, setting high expectations for themselves in training and competition. While setting high expectations is what helps elite athletes achieve vaulted status in their sport, it can also lead to a variety of problems when such high standards are not met, such as:
- Becoming very self-critical of themselves
- Losing confidence and self-esteem
- Dwelling on mistakes and missed chances
- Becoming easily frustrated
Athletes and Body Image
Athletes are often told to put on muscle, lose weight, get fit, put on weight, and/or make a weight class. These messages can be overwhelming and all consuming. It can be hard to separate these thoughts from what your body needs to function at a high level as an athlete while remaining healthy. For some athletes, these messages can lead to a distorted sense of what is normal when it comes to body image.
Negative Body Image and Eating Disorders
Body image concerns and eating disorders tend to be connected. Over-emphasis on having the “right” body can lead to restrictive eating, sometimes eating too much, and/or over-exercising. Patterns of disordered eating and weight obsession can develop into anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating or binge eating disorder.
Signs & Symptoms of Disordered Eating
- Chronic dieting despite being seriously underweight
- Constant weight fluctuations
- Obsession with calories and fat contents of food
- Engaging in ritualistic eating patterns, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, eating alone, and/or hiding food
- Depression or lethargy
- Avoidance of social functions, family and friends. You might find yourself becoming isolated and withdrawn
- Switching between periods of over-eating and fasting
While varsity athletes confront the same developmental tasks of other university-age students (e.g., becoming independent, finding a sense of purpose, coping with uncertainty, clarifying values), they also have other unique challenges associated with being elite athletes, such as intensive training, competition, and extensive travel. Under the close scrutiny of coaches, professors, the media, and influential others, varsity athletes must somehow learn to balance the numerous demands and expectations of school, sports, and social and personal development on a daily basis. Often, such balance can be difficult to obtain, resulting in compromises to one’s mental health.
Everyone goes through times that can leave them feeling down, tired, sad, or alone. However, when these feelings last for long periods of time or interfere with daily tasks, a person may be struggling with depression. Depression affects mood, thinking, and behaviour. Depression is different for everyone, and everyone experiences it in their own way. For many students, the stress of moving away from social support networks, increased academic expectations, family issues, and/or financial difficulties may trigger depression. Varsity athletes face the added stress of balancing high performance expectations with rigorous academic expectations, confronted with the task of finding time to complete their classwork while training and competing several hours per week. Feeling burdened and overwhelmed by these added stresses can also contribute to depression.
Below are some signs and symptoms of depression.
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- You don’t care anymore about former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
- Appetite or weight changes
- Significant weight loss or weight gain – a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
- Sleep Changes
- Either insomnia (can’t fall asleep or waking in the early hours of the morning) or oversleeping.
- Anger or irritability
- Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
- Loss of energy
- Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
- Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
- Reckless behaviour
- You engage in behaviour such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
- Concentration problems
- Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
- Unexplained aches and pains
- An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.
Some anxiety is a normal part of life. Anxious feelings may arise when faced with a problem with friends, when taking a test or completing an assignment, or when making an important decision. Anxiety disorders are more than temporary worry or fear. When a person has an anxiety disorder, the thoughts and feelings often linger and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as performances in school or in sport, in friendships or other relationships, and in other important areas of a person’s life. There are many different types of anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder experience excessive anxiety or worry for months.
- Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling the worry
- Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
People with panic disorder have recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom.
- Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear
- Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack
- Intense worries about when the next attack will happen
- Fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
Social Anxiety Disorder
People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others.
- Feeling highly anxious about being with other people and having a hard time talking to them
- Feeling very self-conscious in front of other people and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or rejected, or fearful of offending others
- Being very afraid that other people will judge you
- Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be
- Staying away from places where there are other people
- Having a hard time making friends and keeping friends
- Blushing, sweating, or trembling around other people
- Feeling nauseous or sick to your stomach when other people are around