OPINION: Mental Health in spor

OPINION: Mental Health in sport – it’s high performance, never a luxury

Far too often, mental health and the duty of care that comes with it, is still seen as a luxury in sport – especially in South Africa. As the conversation opens, we need to change that.

OPINION: Mental Health in spor

Recently, I was involved in an interesting project. After the Whistle, published by the Daily Maverick, is unique. It’s the first time four high profile elite athletes have openly spoken about their struggles.

It’s an important project, and we desperately need more athletes to speak up, especially those from sports where being “touch and strong” trumps everything else. Being depressed does not mean you are not mentally strong.

Still, far too often there’s this idea that mental health issues somehow equal weakness. Robbi Kemspson, one of the athletes who shared his battled with depression in the feature, revealed exactly that.

When you are mentally tough on the rugby field and can happily scrum down with some of the physically toughest men in the world, feeling helpless and overwhelmed are associated with being weak.

For many athletes this is a confusing mix of emotions – tough on one hand, unable to cope on the other. The public perceptions of professional athletes as living the dream also doesn’t help, with a ‘What do you have to be depressed about’ attitude prevalent.

Without the proper awareness and education campaigns to explain these feelings, athletes are left to try and figure things out on their own try muddle their way through, usually to their detriment.

Added to this, showing any vulnerability is difficult for any athlete when they spend their lives in a competitive environment that almost actively discourages any show of vulnerability (or any chink in the armour). Often, athletes turn to a psychologist as a last resort, rather than a first port of call.

This becomes even more apparent when the sports world is somewhere athletes feel safe, a place that helps them cope with life. Lee-Ann Persse’s story, though, shows how it can also be a place to escape from real life.

With the single-minded pursuit of a goal, other issues are pushed aside to be dealt with another time, and all that matters is that training is going well.

Anything that disturbs this focus is quickly dismissed. What ends up happening is that the real person behind the athlete is neglected.

The true mark of well-being for an athlete cannot only be how well they are training and competing – many athletes achieve at the highest level while battling inner daemons. A more holistic approach to athlete well-being needs to be taken, and athletes (and coaches) encouraged to look at themselves and life in its entirety, not through the very narrow lens of elite sport.

But that is complicated for both coaches and the public

When you watch Olympic athletes performing on the global stage every four years, you can get sucked into the excitement of it all as you watch them live out their dreams.

Although we may make a nod to the pressures we think they face, what people don’t fully grasp is the severity of this pressure -or the weight of disappointment when they don’t reach their dreams.

Sometimes this weight is crushing. When coping with both the pressures of performance and the disappointments along the way becomes too much, it is not uncommon for athletes to develop issues such as depression and anxiety.

Phumelela Mbande might have shown signs before her official diagnosis and some of the characteristics that help athletes reach elite level – drive, single minded focus, high expectations and standards – can be the very things that make them susceptible to mental health issues.

Add into this the fact that for elite athletes, performances and disappointments are so public  – it’s a cocktail of risk.

And it doesn’t stop when it’s all over.

One of the issues athletes struggle with when they retire is the question “Who am I?”.

When you’ve defined yourself as an athlete, what happens when you’re no longer that? Also, when others know you as an athlete, trying to carve out a new identity as something else can be a big challenge.

It’s no wonder that athletes often battle with feelings of depression and anxiety when they transition out of sport into normal life. Trying to find new goals that are as meaningful as childhood sporting dreams, can also prove especially difficult. Athletes must find a way to pursue sports dreams while also paying attention to other aspects of themselves, like Sanani Mangisa eventually did.

All four athletes have different stories, but the message remains the same: we need to consider mental health as part of high performance instead of luxury.


Note: Dr. Kirsten van Heerden recenlty authored Waking from the Dream, a book featuring stories from a number of South Africa’s top athletes and their post-retirement struggles.