Physical fitness is part of the job description for any athlete, but your mental health is just as important. 

Performing on the field or court is as much a psychological game as a physical one and if you’re not caring for your mental wellness, you could be putting yourself (and your team) at a disadvantage.

While athletes are some of the most physically healthy people on the planet, research suggests they are more likely to struggle with mental health issues than the general population.[1] 

The pressure to perform well in a game or to constantly achieve new heights in personal performance can be daunting, especially for student-athletes who also have academic pressures to shoulder.

As an athlete, your first responsibility is to take care of yourself. You won’t be any help to your teammates unless you’re healthy yourself – both physically and mentally. 

Here’s what you need to know about mental health in athletes and how to care for yours.

7 Tips to Care for Your Mental Health

Meta-analytic research shows that elite athletes experience higher rates of mental illness relative to the general population – especially for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and sleep disorders. 

Given the overlap in years of active athletic performance and the typical age of onset for common mental disorders, this isn’t surprising.[2]

Roughly 33% of all college students experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions and, of those, about 30% seek help. 

Within the population of student-athletes with mental disorders, however, only about 10% seek help. Up to 35% of professional athletes suffer from mental health issues as well, so it isn’t something you’re likely to simply outgrow.[3]

Here are 7 things you can do to start taking better care of your mental health:

Learn to Recognize the Signs

It’s normal to feel stress, especially when you’re preparing for a big game or trying to juggle athletics with a busy academic schedule. 

When the stress starts to affect your ability to function or you experience daily feelings of anxiety, sadness, or anger, however, it’s important to take notice. 

Learn to identify and acknowledge your feelings so you can communicate them with your family, your coaches, and your team.[4] If it feels like something is going on beneath the surface, reach out and ask for help.

Take Advantage of Mental Health Resources

There are plenty of resources out there to help those struggling with mental health issues, including many geared specifically to athletes. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers a list of national resources from helplines to access to mental health services. For athlete-specific resources, check out this list from Online MSW Programs.

Additionally, Rolling Paper provides health guides and tips to improve yourself, such as health news and the "Healthy Conversation Couch," which fact-checked by doctors. 

Tell Your Story

When you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues it can be tempting to withdraw into yourself and isolate yourself from the world around you. 

In times like these, sometimes the best thing you can do is reach out – tell your story. 

Caroline Silby, clinical and sports psychologist, suggests giving voice to internal struggles can relieve some of the pressure and create an opportunity for others to offer support. When necessary, she also recommends taking time off for mental recovery.[5]   

Create a Healthy Daily Routine

There’s a lot you can’t control in life and it’s easy to succumb to overwhelming feelings of stress or pressure when it all feels like too much. 

One thing you can do to protect your mental and physical wellness is to create and stick to a healthy daily routine. 

Give yourself plenty of time to sleep at night and try to get in the habit of going to bed and getting up at the same times each day. Follow a healthy diet and strive for balance with your workouts and athletic activities. 

Build time for rest and recovery into your routine as well.

Keep Your Body Physically Healthy

You can’t perform well on the field if your body isn’t in peak physical condition. 

As an athlete, it’s equally important that you keep up with your regular workouts and training routine as it is to fuel your body with healthy nutrients. 

Make sure you’re getting the calories you need to sustain your activity and aim for a balance in healthy proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. 

Drink plenty of water as well to stay hydrated. When your body is functioning properly, you’ll feel better physically and mentally.

Ask For Help

Athletes are some of the strongest people in the world but something as simple as asking for help can seem like a daunting task. 

If you’re struggling with your mental health, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. In fact, acknowledging your struggles and taking steps to address them is a sign of strength. 

Reach out to a trusted family member or friend, join a support group, or try online therapy to start getting the support and the help you need.

Stick With Your Treatment

Asking for help is a big step in the right direction, but once you’ve connected with mental health resources or have spoken to a mental health provider, the next step is treatment. 

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), most psychiatric disorders in student-athletes improve and resolve with proper treatment.[6] 

Early recognition is extremely important, but you should continue to work with your doctor to get the help you need to cope with your struggles and to overcome them.

Athletes make a habit of pushing their bodies to their limits, but physical fitness is only half the battle. In fact, mental toughness can make the difference between a win and a loss. 

As an athlete, you have a responsibility toward your team, but your first responsibility is to your own wellness. Before your next game, take stock of your mental health and reach out for help if you need it.

[1] https://www.donovanmentalperformance.com/9-athlete-mental-health-resources
[2] https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-019-0220-1
[3] https://www.athletesforhope.org/2019/05/mental-health-and-athletes/
[4] https://positivecoach.org/the-pca-blog/5-ways-young-athletes-can-improve-their-mental-health-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
[5] https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1437/athletes-get-real-about-mental-health
[6] https://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mind-body-and-sport-psychiatrist-perspective


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