By: Danielle Perez - LA Galaxy MSAT Student
How Athletic Trainers Can Play a Role in Supporting Athlete’s Mental Health
As of recent, mental health in sports is becoming a topic of discussion and is bringing more awareness of how athletes in sport can suffer from a mental health crisis. Specifically, in professional athletes, there is a large stigma that these elite athletes do not suffer from these issues as many people perceive them to be physically strong individuals and have positive mental attributes such as “focused’, “resilient’, “confident”, and “composed”.1 Many people believe that these professional athletes are “superhuman” where they have such great strength, speed, skill and perform exceptionally well under pressure that makes them think that these athletes are made differently than the rest of us. These athletes may be more prone to mental health issues due to extreme pressures and requirements. In a prospective study that looked at professional athletes over a 12-month period found that 35% of professional athletes faced mental health challenges and suffered from disordered eating, burnout, depression and/or anxiety.2 The intense physical and mental demands on these athletes are a part of their professional sporting career and thus may lead to psychological challenges. Within sport, these athletes are not only dealing with sport-specific stressors, but they also deal with life events that are like the general population and other stressors.
Specific stressors that can lead to mental health issues can also include:
- Pressures from public scrutiny through social media
- Limited support networks due to relocation
- Competitive environment
- Risk of injury that may end careers prematurely
- Major negative life events
- Performance failure within themselves1
Major negative life events such as injury can also be a major risk factor for mental health issues within professional athletes. Injuries that remove athletes out of play for a period can be detrimental and lead to a negative psychological and emotional responses such as depression, anxiety, and loss of confidence.3 Whatever the type or cause of injury and the physical impact it will have on the athlete, it will evidently serve as a psychological stressor for the athlete.4
Discussing mental health within professional athletes is a stigma where it is a barrier for these athletes to seek help. Athletes may face other barriers to seeking help that can include:
- Lack of recognition/unaware
- Sign of weakness
- Fear of failing or disappointing others
- Risk of losing playing time
- Male stereotypes, specifically what it means to be a ‘man’
In sports, before athletes can perform at high and optimal levels, it is important that the mind and body recover fully. Mental health is equally important as physical health.
How can Athletic Trainers help in Athletes Mental Health
It is important for us, Athletic Trainers, to approach our athletes with a holistic approach rather than just the athlete’s medical or injury related needs. Although ATs are not mental health care providers, we play a role in getting them the help they need as well as being that person they can trust and open-up to. We work with these athletes daily and build relationships that foster an open and safe spaced environment. It is also important to have empathy and let the athlete know that we care and are here for them. We are the first contact these athletes have, and our responses are crucial in the event of a mental health crisis.
How this can be accomplished:
- Maintain confidentiality
- LISTEN with purpose rather than with a purpose
- Treat them as a person, NOT an athlete
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health illness
- Encourage them to treat their mental health as they would treat their physical health
Most importantly, we must be mindful of our own mental health. It is hard to take care of others if we have not taken care of ourselves.
Professional athletes have been a source of inspiration to people of all ages. Athletes are not mentally tough all the time but if they are supported by others to seek help and share their experiences, this will significantly improve their mental fitness and give them a greater sense of emotional wellbeing.4
Danielle Perez, ATS
MSAT Student at California State University, Long Beach
Los Angeles Galaxy
- Reardon, Hainline, B., et al., Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2019;53(11): 667–699.
- Edison BR, Christino MA, Rizzone KH. Athletic Identity in Youth Athletes: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(14)
- Souter, Lewis, R., & Serrant, L. Men, Mental Health and Elite Sport: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine – Open. 2018; 4(1): 1–8.