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Mental Health and Sports

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By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

As a former clinician and psychotherapist I have always been interested in the relationship between mental health and sports. It is quite well known that physical exercise helps with depression and anxiety. As a result, an entire field called exercise psychology has evolved.

It also appears that youngsters with attention deficit disorders may find sports as an outlet when they are unable to focus on other activities. It therefore seems logical that many individuals suffering from mental illness may navigate towards sports.

Certain sports may be more likely to attract individuals with psychological problems than others. For example, body building may attract individuals with eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder and football or boxing may attract people who may suffer from anger disorders. At the same time, sports may become a form of addiction to individuals who suffer from addiction issues and individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be attracted to the routine of exercise.

All sports involve a significant psychological component, and the experts in the field of sports psychology are constantly looking for ways to improve athletes’ performance though psychological skills training. However, I think that it is equally important for all of us involved in sports to also understand the basics of clinical psychology. Even when athletes may not go into sports with mental illness, competitive sports are likely to create conditions that may cause mental health problems.

Performing at the top level is stressful and demanding, and the pressure to succeed can cause anxiety disorders. Overtraining can cause psychological exhaustion and sleep disorders, and losses may cause depressive disorders. It is important that trainers and coaches know when to refer athletes to professional clinicians and counselors for treatment.

Mental illness can become a serious and life threatening problem. It can destroy lives and careers. Individuals who are suffering from these disorders are often unable to help themselves and see the warning signs. They may deny their symptoms and start self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, or attempt to cope through many self-destructive behaviors. Mental illness also often creates social problems such as relationship complications and isolation. It becomes a revolving cycle that is very hard to get out of. In addition, mental disorders can also manifest themselves as physical symptoms such as headaches and other pains that have no other clear causes.

As sports professionals we can help to prevent mental illness by addressing it early and creating conditions where it is acceptable to discuss it openly. We can educate ourselves about the warning signs and hire clinicians to work with our athletes. Mental illness should not be a taboo. We can talk about it and accept it as a reality, and as part of human condition.

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy. 

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