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Depression Among Athletes Goes Underreported – Sports Psychology Essay

Depression Among Athletes Goes Underreported – Sports Psychology Essay
For many decades sports have played large roles in human’s everyday lives. Whether one is an elite or recreational athlete, there is a high amount of pressure inflicted upon that individual by coaches and oneself in

order to be the best one can be. Although many athletes can successfully climb the mountain of emotional and psychological obstacles that lie in their paths, there are some who find themselves overwhelmed and full of anxiety. Athletes tend to be more susceptible to depression due to the many challenges they must endeavor throughout the course of their athletic career. There are several sports specific factors that contribute to depression, factors which include injury, burnout and overtraining. As well, the expectations of coaches and teammates, heightened public visibility, time demands and racial and gender stereotyping add to depressive pressures. Unfortunately, depression among athletes goes underreported due to the fear of being perceived as “weak”. Athletes are taught to be tough and strong, therefore depression is not something that many want to face or accept and because of that, sports psychologist are rarely used for such issues as depression. Sport participation incurs a certain amount of stress and anxiety on athletes, therefore putting individuals at a high risk for developing a mental illness such as depression.

Depression is a common mental disorder which affects up to 25% of female athletes and 12% of male athletes (Wesley, 2002, pg 56). Athletes will experience a loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, low energy, poor concentration and irritability ( Unfortunately, athletes who experience symptoms of depression are reluctant to seek help, due to the perception that depression carries a cloak of shame. Athletes are taught to be tough and by admitting to a psychological or emotional problem, an individual’s confidence is threatened. Athletes are trained by their coaches to ‘play through the pain’ and struggle through adverse problems on their own without letting anyone see them cry.

“A 2001 study … found that 96 percent of coaches and 97
percent of athletes said mental health is extremely important
to overall performance. That’s good news. However, 85 percent
of coaches said their athletes come to talk to them about mental
health, though only 68 percent of the athletes said they could
go to their coach about such issues”

Seeking help in the sport’s world is a sign of weakness, when really it should be recognized as a sign of strength.

Athletes display a variety of psychological responses to injury including negative reactions such as depression. The inevitable losses such as early retirement in one’s athletic career, or the psychological pain one goes through when experiencing an injury have been known to lead to depression. Depression is fairly common among injured athletes. The more successful the athlete, the more serious the injury, the more likely the athlete will experience an episode of severe depression. Athletes whose self-identity is highly wrapped up in sports are more likely to experience greater depression then recreational athletes. One may feel isolated, experience a huge loss of identity and feel that they have limited options if their ability to continue with their chosen sport is jeopardized. When an injury occurs, whether it is severe or not, an athlete is unable to train to his or her potential. In some cases, an athlete may never fully recover from his/her injury, eventually ending their career. The inability to return to pre-injury performance levels and the thought of being replaced by a teammate can only lead one further into depression.

“Factors such as the magnitude of the injury, the
success of the rehabilitation program, the athlete’s
personality, and level of competition have an
impact on the athlete’s responses, rendering the
responses somewhat idiosyncratic”
(Wann, 1997, pg 219).

A number of intervention strategies are discussed throughout our textbook, in reference to athletic injury management. Many sport psychologists have devoted their attention to the benefits of providing psychological intervention strategies to injured athletes (Wann, 1997, pg 217). Psychological interventions for injured athletes can prevent future mental illnesses, such as depression. Injury interventions involve two distinct steps. First and foremost, the psychologist must assess the psychological ramifications of the injury. Second, based on the assessment, psychologists must begin to implement a program which best fits the athlete and their needs (Wann, 1997, pg 222). Because research has indicated that there is a strong correlation between injury and mental illnesses such as depression, it is imperative that athletes seek psychological interventions to assist them with their recovery.

Other leading factors which contribute to depression among athletes are overtraining, choking and high levels of anxiety. Highly motivated athletes, consumed with the will to perform well and win, become frustrated by poor performance and loosing. As a result, they increase their practice time and training intensity, causing increased fatigue, ultimately worsening performance, which in turn may eventually lead to depression.

“Overtraining can lead to athletic burnout referred
to as overtraining syndrome. The physical demands
of the athletic activity could conceivably deplete necessary
biological factors such as neurotransmitters. One
response to less than satisfactory performance
is to push themselves even harder in their training,
leading to a state of chronic fatigue and depression”
(Nichols, 1993, pg 96).

Depression is one of the biggest psychological problems among over trained athletes. If overtraining persists, it is imperative for athletes to seek psychological help so that depression doesn’t occur. Another leading factor which contributes to depression among athletes is high levels of anxiety. Anxiety has been strongly correlated with depression in a number of studies ( The continuous stress and pressure on athletes to perform well by fans, coaches and oneself causes one to experience high levels of anxiety, which in turn negatively affects ones performance.
“Literature shows athletes with lower state
anxiety and less depressed mood are more likely
to perform better than their more anxious and
depressed counterparts” (

Although, there are a number of external forces which cause athletes to experience depression, it is ultimately up to oneself to face the issues at hand, admit there’s a problem and then ask for help.

Fortunately, depression is very treatable, however unfortunately there are simply too many forces opposing some athletes to seek treatment. Athletes are afraid to disclose any psychiatric symptoms for fear that it will be revealed and exploited as a sign of weakness and therefore do not seek professional help. Athletes who experience depression try to cure themselves, mistakenly believing that depression is only a state of mind that a person can snap out of, rather then understanding depression as a disease.
‘“As athletes, we are taught to be tough,” said former
NHL all-star Pat LaFontaine, who has battled depression.
“You get up and shake if off. But you can’t do that with
depression. For me, the harder I tried, the worse it got”

Sport psychologists are extremely underused when an athlete is seeking professional help. Although not all sport psychologists are qualified in dealing with psychological issues such as depression, clinical sport’s psychologists are professionals who are trained to treat such issues. Because every athlete is different, clinical sport psychologists must treat every case of depression individually. When an athlete experiences an injury and as a result falls into the deep shadows of depression, the Affective Cycle Theory argues that an athlete’s reaction is comprised of three different responses: distress, denial and determined coping (Wann, 1997, pg 218). It is important for a clinical sport’s psychologist to assess the individual and the situations that led up to the cause of depression. Without psychological intervention, athletes are very unlikely to obtain a quick recovery process, and may end up falling deeper and deeper into depression.

It is almost impossible for athletes to continue on training, when struggling with depression. When an athlete makes his/her well-being and personal happiness conditional upon goal attainment, they put themselves at risk for depression due to possible failure. Injuries to athletes are very career-threatening and therefore as well can lead an athlete down the long road of depression. Fortunately, there are ways to limit some of the anxiety that an athlete may experience throughout his/her athletic career, however the challenge for one is to gain personal strength and seek psychological intervention. Early detection and intervention can allow athletes to recover from their illness or injury so the athlete can resume their ‘normal’ life and continue training if they wish to do so.