Getting physically active is the first step suggested by professionals to fight and overcome depression. But, depression can even enslave a sportsperson. "Depression is not something you make light of. It's serious."- Terry Bradshaw.
The suicide of Robin Williams (and other great talents over the last years) is a frank reminder of how devastating depression can be. Depression doesn't care about how successful you are, how much people like you, or how great an athlete you are. It sneaks up on people, and most of us never know that someone was depressed until it is too late. Depression and athletes are a common pairing that coaches need to be aware of.
What causes Depression in Athletes?
Depression can be a reaction to a specific situation or life event (for example, bullying or the break-up of a relationship) or can seemingly come out of the blue. It is also influenced by genetic predispositions. In a study, the causes of depression amongst the athletes were:
No Down Time
Pressure is part of any competitive sport and it is easy to see how it can influence a player's confidence, especially when a player is stepping up to a higher level, like from high school to college. Adapting to the demands of the game is part of the learning experience but sometimes that can create significant self-doubt. Feeling overwhelmed mentally or physically can deplete energy and lead to a cascade of negative thoughts and loss of confidence. Interestingly, physical activity is considered the lifestyle behavior that can most counteract depression. Starting an exercise regimen, or stepping one up, is a common anti-depressant treatment recommendation for the general population. But with your athletes, they already have an exercise regimen and taken to extremes, exercise can have the opposite effect of draining energy and lowering mood. Anxiety is also common with depression as the brain oscillates between being significantly under-aroused to hyper-aroused. And as we all know, anxiety and the over-thinking that goes with it, will seriously affect any performance. Sometimes a combination of these factors conspires to create significant mood disturbance.
A Client's Story:
[For confidential policies that EduPsych abides by we are naming the client as SB]
SB, a 17 year old table tennis player, was one of the best players in his sports academy. Entering his junior year, the coaches were expecting great things from him. In the early pre-season practices, SB looked a little lethargic and out of focus. No problem, it was just the beginning of pre-season. But as the season approached, SB's energy levels didn't pick up. One of the assistant coaches noticed that SB wasn't smiling or laughing as much as normal. In fact, the more the coach observed, the more he saw that SB wasn't interacting much with the other players and untypically was coming to and leaving the gym on his own. Twenty-four hours before the season opener, the coaching staff finally realized that SB was significantly depressed. The coach decided to confirm his observation by speaking to SB's dad, who was a regular at SB's training sessions and very keen on his son's growth as a sportsman. His dad, too, agreed with the coach and noted that SB was not in his best shape while he was playing a game- which was different from his practice sessions. The causes? Increased pressure to perform and live up to his dad's expectations. He often found his dad concerned about his growth. SB had taken it up on him that by under performing he was resulting in his dad's loss of money.
While many high school and college students (especially freshmen) will subsequently admit to depression, few actually talk openly about it or even seek help. In one study, it was estimated that more than 10% of college freshmen were so depressed that they had suicidal thoughts but 85% of them were not receiving any help. We think this is driven by :
The stigma of seeking help
Lack of proactive support and the right environment to raise issues early. If you want anyone to confide in you, especially your players, it is necessary to provide a safe and respectful communication environment.
In addition to the shame that accompanies depression, athletes typically feel they should be tough and "suck it up," which further limits their willingness to seek guidance. Most people will only open up to you if they feel safe and are encouraged to do so.
What Should I Do if I Suspect Depression?
Create a safe environment: It's possible that simply sharing their concerns with their coaching mentors will be a relief to athletes and help them, with your support and advice, put things in perspective.
Don’t create punishments: If your athletes come to you, they will be concerned about being benched or impacting their playing time. While there might be short term impacts, as a coach, you should lay out the long term benefits to getting help.
Involve other teammates: Let them talk to upperclassmen who have also struggled.
When in doubt, bring in an expert: If you have any doubt at all, it is important that you refer the player to a mental health professional for a proper assessment. However, don’t just send them to the outside help and assume that this will solve the problem. Talk with their parents, stay involved and supportive.
Are You A Coach? Please Note:
Because of the stigma associated with a psychological illness, and the illness itself, which is associated with a sense of shame and helplessness, athletes are unlikely to reveal it. This means that the burden of detection falls on others, who therefore have a key role to play in directing sufferers to sources of professional help.
When it comes to mental health, we believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So proactively investing in your athletes' mental skills will not only lead to higher levels of performance but will also prevent mental health issues. However, there is no magic pill and depression is a crippling reality among athletes.Therefore, as a coach, creating a safe, trusting environment where athletes can openly express their concerns and even get help is a key to minimizing the impact of depression on individuals and your program.
Don't wait until it is too late. Reach out to us if you need help. Book an appointment with us.