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The Grind: A Deconstruction of Mental Health in Competitive Sport

Professional athletes from every sport are highly sensationalized- just like your favourite movie stars. They are required not only to excel at their sports, but also to PERFORM, and engage with their audiences through various media platforms. When they don't perform, it's not only their loss they worry about, but also letting people down.

The inherent pressures of competitive sport come to professional, seasoned athletes as a duck takes to its water. But even the stillest of waters hold perils. In retrospect, the rigours of the apex level leave players with a strong mindset, and they're usually the better for it. Even then, the stage, as well as the person, can crumble to absolute dust. And that is only human.

Simone Biles - the shining light of US gymnastics. The world, even more so. Rampant in her mind, she strode to a stunning haul of 4 gold medals and a singular bronze at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, sweeping clean the gymnastics events.

With the world watching, and rather expecting than hoping, she was set to pull off yet another coup at the Tokyo Olympics.

Biles left the world in some wonder when she pulled out of the team gymnastics final after the first round this past week in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics. A rather nervy, imperfect opening vault was but a microcosm of her disarray - it was clear that Biles wasn't in the best shape mentally. And it showed. Unsurprisingly, she also parted ways with the all-around individual gymnastics event yesterday.

Plaudits must be paid to the US gymnastics team and the Olympic committee for standing by her courageous decision to exit the event. The pressures of constantly performing to the highest expectations had taken their toll on the young shoulders of perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time, and she needed her time to reset and replenish.

She chose her health over the feathers in her cap. And she has never been more correct and justified in doing so.

Recently, Naomi Osaka announced that she would not participate in post-match news conferences during the French Open because she said that negative questions about her play affected her mental health, and she was fined 15,000$ for not fulfilling her media obligations.

Deeply engrossed in watching our choice of sports matches, snacks and drinks on hand, all we see are the players and their game.

Did they perform up to our expectations? Are they ‘in form’?

Ever thought about what’s really going on below the surface?

The data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictions or substance misuse.

The perception that elite athletes are without mental health problems is being challenged and research indicates that elite athletes are also vulnerable to and struggle with mental health problems.

“It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day. We all got feelings . . . all of that. Sometimes […] it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.” said NBA player DeMar DeRozan via The Star.

A study found that athletes were significantly more likely to report 'high to very high' psychological distress ( 17.15%) compared to general community norms (9.5%)

Lower levels of self-esteem and sensation-seeking in athletes have been associated with greater risk for depression, anxiety, social anxiety, and negative physical symptoms, all of which may impede their performance.

Naomi Osaka - 23, is not only the world’s highest-paid female athlete but also a generational tennis star.

It is the first time in professional tennis that a star as significant as Ms Osaka, who has not suffered a physical injury, has walked away in the middle of an event as big as the French Open.


Ms Osaka cited concerns for her mental health, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

“If the organizations think they can keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to get fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centrepiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote on social media.

Ms Osaka is certainly not the only elite athlete to have acknowledged mental health struggles.

The NBA player Kevin Love has spoken about having a panic attack during a game.

The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has talked openly about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Phelps has been vocal on several occasions about the toll professional sports can take on an athlete's mental health. In 2020, he produced and narrated an HBO documentary, The Weight of Gold, which shed light on the anxiety and depression many Olympians experience when the cameras are turned off.

As Olympians Shaun White, David Boudia, Lolo Jones, Bode Miller and more revealed in the documentary, training for and recovering from the Olympics is hard enough already. But for the group of hopefuls who were trying to qualify for the postponed Tokyo 2020 games, a global pandemic, financial uncertainty and inability to train all collided in the last year.

“We’re supposed to be these big, macho, physically strong human beings. But this is not a weakness. We are seeking and reaching for help’, says Michael Phelps, as he talks about his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“After every Olympics, I fell into a major state of depression. 2004 was probably the first depressive spell I went through. I didn't want to be in the sport anymore, I didn't want to be alive anymore. I am extremely thankful that i did not take my life” he said in 2018

He went on to say, “Since the day I opened up about my emotions, it's been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life.”

Naomi Osaka takes a stand for her mental health, but so do several other athletes.

As a member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) for more than 10 years, Abby Wambach collected her fair share of hardware, including two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup championship, and six U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year awards.

But Wambach has more to be proud of. After an April 2016 arrest for driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII), Wambach decided to get help for a years-long drug and alcohol addiction, which she details in her book, “Forward: A Memoir.”

“It’s really hard to talk about things when you’re ashamed. And I’m not ashamed about what happened to me anymore because it led me to where I’m at right now. I’m proud of where I’m at.” says Wambach, via Associated Press

It's never too late or too soon to pursue a resource for your mental health concern.

As Michael Phelps said, “But look, you can only get help if you ask for it. You need to pick up the phone.”


Citta India aims to provide affordable mental health resources to people who need it in times of uncertainty. Contact us or reach out on our social media platforms for more information.

Written by Kareena Rajani

Rushil Mullick

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