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Sports Psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick and the Stigma of Mental Health in Sports

Credit: Christopher Hiew from Pexel

The Circular spoke to a number professional athletes, as well as renowned sports psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick, to understand the stigma surrounding mental health issues in sports, and what can be done about it.

Athletes experience mental health issues just like everyone else, but the pressure to perform and the culture of men´s locker rooms often keep their problems hidden.

“Sure, sports can be a release, but that is just the exercise. The pressure, the social situations,  all that triggers the problems you might have”, says a Swedish professional basketball player suffering from depression.

Experts agree that physical exercise is good for your mental well-being, but all the workouts in the world cannot protect you from depression, anxiety, and other issues.

Athletes experience mental health issues just like everyone else, but the pressure to perform often increases it. Credit: Heather Williams

“You feel good doing something you love, but there are so many things that can turn it into torturous anxiety as well”, says a Croatian basketball player.

He says two things are more prevalent than all the rest: Pressure to perform and injuries.

His views are common; of the people interviewed, almost all listed these as the biggest triggers.

Being injured is by far the hardest”, says an American basketball player with experience from several European professional leagues.

“You feel all this pressure, not just from the coaches, but also from your teammates. Coaches are stressing you to get ready to play and often it seems like your teammates don´t believe that you are really hurt, that you are just being soft. And since I am American, and teams can only have a certain number of us on the roster, I know that if I don’t play then I could be replaced by someone else”, he continues. “Meanwhile, you´re hundreds of miles from home and you barely speak the language. I did not know I had mental health problems until I went through that”.

He does not want his name in the article. Not one person interviewed does. Though they claim they are not ashamed of their problems, they also don´t want people to know. A common concern is that teams won´t sign them if they know about their issues.

“Despite a more open conversation in recent times, there is still sometimes a perception of weakness surrounding mental health issues. “

Niamh Fitzpatrick

As a Swedish football player tells it: “A year ago a coach asked me about a player. I told him that he was talented but that he had some issues. He got concerned but I clarified that it did not affect his game. The coach never even contacted him.”

Apart from that, many of them speak of a locker room culture of silence about mental health.

“Despite a more open conversation in recent times, there is still sometimes a perception of weakness surrounding mental health issues. My belief is that rather than viewing a bout of anxiety or depression how we view a bout of flu or chickenpox, as something we go through but often come out the other side from, people sometimes view mental ill-health as being somehow more permanent, something that indicates a weakness in our character”, says Niamh Fitzpatrick, a sports and clinical psychologist who has worked with All-Ireland winners as well as the Irish Olympic squad.

The idea that athletes would be less likely to suffer from mental health problems because of their physical health has no evidence according to her.

“My experience over 27 years working as a psychologist is that the sporting population has a similar incidence of mental health issues to the general population.”

With that said, the interviewees were rarely aware of having played with more than two or three people with disorders like anxiety or depression.

Fitzpatrick puts some of it down to what athletes are supposed to be.

“The perception is that great athletes are tough, strong and resilient and we have a way to go before it is universally seen that feeling anxious or depressed is not mutually exclusive to those traits.”

Earlier this year, NBA star Kevin Love exited a game without any visible injury. Comments from fans, players, and even teammates told the same story; Love was either soft or a quitter. Later, Love spoke out about his problems and revealed that the reason he left the game was, in fact, a panic attack. 

 Kevin Love of NBA team Cleveland Cavaliers has opened up about the pressures of playing sport at the top level, which led him to have panic attacks on court. Credit: Erik Drost

In Sweden, an organisation called Locker Room Talk aims to clean up language and attitudes in locker rooms, but also to create an environment where people feel comfortable to open up about subjects that have been taboo, like homosexuality and mental health issues.

“We need to talk about it. Hundreds of millions of people will experience depression at some point in their life, but I have only played with one person that was open about it. It clearly does not make any sense statistically”, says another American basketball player.

But it is not all bad.  One player says that he struggled to find stability in his career until he found a coach that was willing to listen.

“It doesn’t make sense why more coaches don’t do it. Him listening made me a better player, which obviously is in his best interest”, he says.

He adds that having a coach that understands is the single most important thing. When you know you can have bad days and your coach won´t question your character or toughness, it makes it a lot easier to perform on the good days. 

Credit: Fayjo

“An athlete is a person first and an athlete second”, notes Fitzpatrick. “In the sporting world, an insightful and emotionally intelligent coach or manager can create a safe environment where athletes can be their true selves and seek help for both physical and mental ill-health and we need more of this in sport.”

With all of the interviewees, it goes back to the same thing: The pressure to perform. At a professional level, that is even more prominent since bad performances can cost you your livelihood. For professional basketball players in Europe, like most of those interviewed are, contracts typically last one season, so a couple of bad performances could cost you a lot of money the next season.

Everyone agrees that things need to change; that mental health must be put in the spotlight. While one basketball player says that things are getting better, he also says that we have a long way to go.

“I don´t think that someone like Kevin Love could have spoken out like this ten years ago. Still, he is an exception, and he shouldn’t have to be.”

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