Maintaining mental health and preventing illness in professional  sports

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Berchtesgaden (FIL) On June 23rd, Olympic Day is under the motto #StrongerTogether and due to current events in other sports, we deal with the topic of mental health of top athletes.

Competitive athletes are ambitious, goal-oriented and restless - they are winners. If they achieve success, they are celebrated like heroes. After a defeat, individual athletes are often alone. But athletes are undoubtedly only human. 
Of course, the human psyche can grow from tasks and sport in a healthy environment can prevent depression. However, in the case of overpowering, persistent psychological stress, a top athlete can also become ill. Whether a mental illness occurs or not depends on various factors.

Family, friends or teammates, especially in team sports, are a very important social aspect in everyday life. Social contacts contribute to mental health. 
For competitive athletes, extreme physical and psychological stress can lead to sleep disorders, frequent injuries, vulnerability to infections, loneliness, and even anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, or addictions.

The team doctor of the Latvian national team Dr. Zane Kruze, also a member of the FIL Medical Commission, reports on her experiences: “In my job I have faced athletes with mental health issues. Pressure from surrounding environment according to high results can be very challenging. And athletes are reacting differently to such situations. In my practise it has been a case when an athlete had developed somatovegatative dystonie, because of high stress level and because of that needed to finish athletes career. Since the autonomic nervous system works independently of the conscious will of the person, it is often difficult to find a physical cause for the symptoms in this disease. It is very often that athletes suffer a lot if they need to interrupt their career because of some health issues”.

Naomi Osaka, Foto: IOC

Currently a prominent example is the Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka. The world number two had to drop out of the tournament in France and make her depression public because the pressure on her became too great. For other athletes, this case can be the impetus to talk about their own problems, fears and depression at an early stage and to get professional help. 

The Russian team doctor and member of the FIL Medical Commission Dr. Ruslan Simashvili says: “Our sport is individual, often there are no allies within the team, there is always a struggle for a place in the team. And this fact also causes psychological stress. In addition, in the context of the pandemic, the circle of communication has completely decreased. There is a big difference between European teams that can visit their families between competitions. There, in the family circle, athletes receive the most necessary human support, they are distracted from sports for at least a few days and come to the competition fresh. Of course, the team's medical staff and coaches should understand these aspects of an athlete's professional career and try to create a trusting and comfortable climate within the team or for individual athletes who are particularly in need of it. Sometimes, it is enough just to talk, to look at the world with different eyes, and the old problems will resolve themselves”. 

Mentally particularly critical phases for athletes are long-lasting injuries, failures or the end of a career. For a long time, this topic was taboo in competitive sports. Yet mental illnesses are about as common among top athletes as they are among other people. It is particularly important to act early in the event of excessive, constant pressure to perform and compete, in order to prevent it and to remain able to perform. A treated depression is not a criterion for not being successful.

Olympic Day 2021

Dr. Zane Kruze is sure: “It is an important role of sports physician in teams to create positive microclimate in a team. Sports physician should treat athletes individualy. They have an important role in creating positive microclimate between coaches and athletes. Athletes should know that they are not alone and that it is possible to receive help from medical staff”.

The high time commitment of training and competitions, the strong focus on one subject and one goal, often lead to social isolation. There is hardly any time left for social contacts and the self-esteem of world-class athletes is mostly based exclusively on their athletic and physical performance. The International Luge Federation, FIL, has the unrestricted goal of ensuring the prevention, treatment and maintenance of the mental health of its athletes.

The Vice-Chairman of the FIL Medical Commission, Dr. Eugene Burne (USA) appeals to all competitive athletes: "You are not alone with psychological problems. If necessary, one should seek help at an early stage. We are all subject to medical confidentiality. You can contact all of us personally in the Medical Commission or, of course, psychologists in your personal environment. You are never alone with the stresses of competitive sports. That is particularly important to me."

#StrongerTogether film IOC - the World only moves forward if we move together:

Photos and Video IOC (International Olympic Committee)

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