Expert provides insight on sports and mental health

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Professional athletes can endure loneliness along with tremendous pressure when pursuing their goals in their sport, and their focus on their mental well-being is often overlooked. A Baylor College of Medicine expert emphasizes the importance of prioritizing mental health for professional athletes and how parents can help young athletes focus on mental health at an early age.

“Competing athletes are most focused on their body and develop their skills during their season. This continues even during their downtime with extra attention paid to their sleeping, moisturizing and nutrition. At the same time, it is also very important to have a certain balance, ”he said Karen Winston, clinical assistant professor in Cultures Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in Baylor.

In addition to honing the skills in their sport, there is additional pressure on many of them from acquaintances, fans and family members who draw athletes in unrealistic ways and expect them to provide perks such as game tickets, airline tickets or material items. This can create tension, anxiety and mental strain in their relationships, so athletes are advised to focus on who and what is most important to them, especially the people who are supportive and have a positive impact on their lives.

“The fewer distractions and the less drama, the better for their performance and mental well-being,” Winston said.

With so much on the plate, professional athletes can experience burnout. While this is not unusual, they need to be aware of how hard they are pushing themselves. It is important to take a break from their sport and let both their mind and body relax and recover. Common signs of burnout may include:

• Apathy
• Exhaustion
• Lost appetite
• Anxiety
Feeling overwhelmed
• Fatigue / Sleep more / less than normal
• Does not perform their best

If any of these symptoms of burnout persist, seek professional help. Winston said many athletes seek advice when they have pressure related to family, dating / marriage, finances or social media. Athletes have publicly discussed the enormous emotional strain of being responsive to the media, upcoming public events, or public appearances. It can be helpful to talk to a mental health professional before performing in public.

“I suggest talking to a mental health professional who can guide them through techniques to help them, but also to help them understand what triggers the emotions and thoughts that keep them from doing their best,” he said. Winston.

The pandemic added a layer of loneliness as many athletes cannot travel with their families or see their followers in the crowd. Although some organizations now allow fans, Olympic athletes will not want them to cheer for them at the Tokyo Games. Because many are regularly driven by the crowd, a lack of fan presence can make some feel alone.

“Under normal circumstances, it is important for some athletes to know where their loved ones are in the crowd and that they can meet their eyes. It’s a touchstone, ”Winston said. “Most athletes have developed techniques to stay mentally tough and focused, and without personal support it can be a challenge for some. It can really create a feeling of loneliness. ”

Winston stresses the importance of staying connected to loved ones while away from home. Athletes who are struggling emotionally may consider talking to their teammates or a trusted employee about difficult emotions. Teams may have a designated mental health professional available to talk to the players and staff in confidence. It is in the best interest of both the athletes and the team for coaches and managers to embrace the idea and encourage talking to a mental health professional.

“Talking to someone is often considered the opposite of harsh. Lift the stigma straight and embrace it. When athletes can say out loud what worries them, they find it soothing to talk to someone who is not judgmental, who can listen and help, ”Winston said.

As mental health among athletes becomes more and more debated, Winston praises this generation for creating a space that is less shame-based than previous generations. Trying to create a team, get to the Olympics, win a medal or a major championship brings incredible excitement and pressure. Feeling of anxiety is normal in these situations, but if it interferes with one’s performance or general well-being, it may be time to seek consultation. Social media also plays a big role in the well-being of professional athletes, so fans and the public should be kind and give them grace online.

“When you start talking about athletes in person and wondering about their lives and degrading them on social media when you do not know them, it affects many of them. If your job was on TV every day and you were judged for it, would you not have mercy? Said Winston. “They try as hard as they can, they entertain us, they allow us to get into their lives, but control can be very brutal and unfair and can affect their performance. These are people who have worked all their lives for this opportunity. ”

When it comes to young athletes, Winston addresses the professional recommendations of the former Olympic dr. Lennie Waite, now a sports performance consultant in Houston.

• Parents should emphasize the importance of mental health in young athletes starting in middle school.
• Maintain schedule and increase flexibility.
• Make sure young athletes get enough rest and check in on their sports experiences.
• Avoid putting a lot of pressure on young athletes to perform.
Goal setting can be an advantage, but short-term goals are best for younger athletes.

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