The world of sports holds magic within itself – magic that not just captivates the sportspersons but also their audience. Sports – since time immemorial – has had its unique way of impacting society and mind you, it’s not just limited to providing little children with role models. The sports industry is a billion-dollar business and has positively impacted local economies through tourism dollars across the globe. Furthermore, it serves as a platform for people to come together and celebrate their national unity and pride. The impact doesn’t end here as the world of sports has proven to be an effective stage for raising charity for the needy and awareness for issues of global concern. One such global concern in recent times has been that of mental health.

A sportsperson is often seen as the epitome of mental strength. You hear – Ronaldo, Messi, Federer. You think – Perseverance, Grit, Will Power. The story of the William sisters who’ve battled adversities of all kinds living on the mean streets of Compton, California highlights how sports is not just about physical technique. It also stands for being tough yet remaining calm. It means to have strong reflexes yet respond in a calculated manner. In short, sports and athletics have always been more about the brain and less about the brawn. 

As individuals, it’s common to resort to the life stories of role models coming from the world of sports, when we face misfortunes in our own lives. Their stories teach us a very important formula, that is, to have mind over matter. But what happens when one’s mind is the actual cause of one’s affliction? Does an athlete’s influence on one’s life really matter then?

A few months back at the 2021 Olympics, an American gymnast – Simone Biles had the spotlight shining on her and the moment had arrived for which she had been training for years. Millions of fans waited to watch her compete and see her win a medal. The gymnast, instead, used her spotlight to make a very rare announcement – “I need to step away from this competition and focus on my mental health.” And with this, the athlete was able to shift the narrative towards mental health awareness and intervention at the global stage. 

Athletes often carry a larger-than-life persona in the public eye. They’re regarded as modern-day warriors, competitors who bravely push past obstacles and adversity in the pursuit of victory. In today’s win-at-all-cost world, a competitor shutting down to deal with a mental health concern can bring unwanted labels such as “quitter.” Worries about that serve as an enormous obstacle to athletes getting the care they need. In such scenarios, athletes such as Biles along with tennis player Naomi Osaka and basketball player Kevin Love, coming out and pressing the pause button at the pinnacle of their athletic careers have helped accelerate a trend for discussing mental health issues at global forums.

These instances of high-profile athletes prioritizing their mental health, along with organized efforts from the sports industry, have triggered an important shift in the narrative of mental health in sports. They’ve increased awareness of the numerous career dynamics that pose mental health risks to athletes: unsustainable expectations for perfection and constant improvement, enormous public pressure to win, pervasive demand to outwork or outlast an opponent, and relatively short career spans that can end in the blink of an eye due to injury. Many of these dynamics are common to people across different industries. As a result, conversations about mental health have now proliferated in organizations across sectors on workplace mental health and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has further pushed these organizations into revising and refocusing their organizational health strategies. 

For years, the advice regarding mental health issues could essentially be boiled down to four words: Just push through it. With global athletes coming to the fore, we can now hope that old stigmas related to mental health are banished and more and more people are encouraged to seek help from mental experts.

– Sonal Himanshu

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