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Mental Health and Sport

Mental health has been in the spotlight recently and it’s no wonder. Academic papers, podcasts, news interviews, and personal blogs have highlighted global increases in rates of anxiety and depression. The pandemic hasn't helped, while it has certainly exposed what happens when basic human needs such as real social connection and opportunities for goal-directed behaviour are suddenly limited. Perhaps lessons learned could steer us towards refocusing on creating meaningful relationships and purposeful work.

One of the sectors most affected by the pandemic has been the sport and exercise industry. Exercise hubs were shut down for long periods of time and sporting events were cancelled for more than a year. Fitness fanatics and average Joes alike were left without the means to move, while many professional athletes lost opportunities to compete – some even their livelihoods.

The closing of exercise facilities, and the loss of community that came with it, seemed to expose what can happen through enforced social isolation and a shortage of those feel good hormones we call endorphins. Many once fit and healthy individuals struggled to adapt to the online exercise world. The loss of their normal exercise routines and connected social scenes seemed to trigger intense feelings of stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Perhaps, what was bubbling under the surface was suddenly pushed into awareness.

Furthermore, the pressures of the professional athletic community were also compounded during the last two years. Many athletes ‘came forward’ with disclosures of how they’ve struggled with anxiety and depression both during and prior to the pandemic. Some even withdrew from competition due to overwhelming stress. Perhaps, these incidents have exposed a worrying lack of psychological support within the professional athletic ranks. Most psychology and psychological interventions found within professional sport are aimed at performance outcomes rather than supporting mental health - a dynamic that can be more anxiety provoking rather than ‘stress containing’.

All is not doom and gloom, however. It often requires adversity to expose what needs to change. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of a revolution in mental health care within sports. Athletes who’ve been talking about their psychological battles have shone a light on our shared human vulnerabilities. Many of them have championed the idea of being able to find professional help in the form of good psychotherapy, as well as the importance of creating and maintaining intimate connections with family, friends, and partners. These athlete’s stories seem to have inspired many others to talk about what they too have been experiencing.

Sport and exercise has always been a corner stone of both physical and mental health. Participating in individual or team sports or even just following an exercise routine can promote a present-focused mindset, social connection, and meaningful goal-directed behaviours. Sport is symbolic of what we do in life – understand the rules handed down to us, play (kind of) within those rules, while setting targets and to trying to hit them!

Our hope at Comeback, is that we continue to move towards a more psychologically-educated sporting community and society at large. This hope extends towards the idea of somehow rediscovering, and working with, the human elements or foundational aspects of sports performance – self-awareness, resilience, and social support.

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