Inside Track

How Sports Has Sparked a Global Conversation About Mental Health

Athletes have long been viewed as gladiators and titans—physically dominating in a never-ending quest to win championships. They’re expected to fight through injury and pain at any cost to emerge victoriously. 

This image has dominated fans’ perspective of sports for as long as they’ve been played. But, recently, several high-profile athletes have shrugged off this formerly indefatigable ethos to bring down walls that have long stood blocking our community’s ability to talk about mental health and well-being. 

Getting People to Talk Openly About Mental Health 

Social media and online video channels have undoubtedly been a big part of the long road to openly embracing athlete well-being. 

Social media allowed athletes to give fans a peek behind the scenes at who they are and how they operate before and after a game—they’re more than just a jersey number or an athletic pawn on the path to winning. 

The personal connection fans get from being closer to athletes has, in some ways, helped to break down the wall a bit that allows us to see players as more than just an athlete. When we see personal stories instead of just highlights, it humanizes them in a way that has helped foster hard conversations about well-being. 

In addition, high-profile sports like football, basketball, and soccer started to adjust rules and regulations around concussions. Today, there is a distinct difference in how players are triaged and treated during competition which has helped bring the conversation home about concussions and mental health. The more we see players being evaluated and sit out games to focus on recovering, the more we’re able to start to see just how vital the long-term impacts of brain health are to athletes. 

Micro-Movements Help 

It’s not new that athletes are openly talking about mental health. In the past, Kevin Love of the NBA has openly discussed his challenges with depression. In 2018, he wrote an essay for the Players’ Tribune, “Everyone Is Going Through Something,” that helped launch a platform for other high-profile basketball players to talk about what they’re dealing with. 

During the pandemic, Love continued the conversation and shared how he deals with depression and anxiety, including therapy, journaling, and daily check-ins with himself. 

In his high school years, he fought his depression by channeling the struggles as a mechanism to win basketball games, which only had adverse effects on his well-being. 

“You can’t achieve yourself out of depression,” Love said to CNBC. “You can’t achieve yourself out of that high-level of anxiety.”

Now, Love focuses on his Kevin Love Fund, which aims to educate people about mental health through research and grants. 

A Moment Transcends the Conversation 

When we think of athletes, we’ve been conditioned to think in terms of their tenacity, fight, and toughness.

Athletes are lauded for their ability to power through the pain and deflect external forces in a valiant effort to win at all costs. The foundation for most of this strength is muscular, but we’re starting to learn that the real roots of mental toughness and the ability to succeed come from the mind. 

Simone Biles stunned the world when she withdrew from the Summer Games. But, it started to all make sense. Gymnastics is a tightly-controlled world of precision and accuracy. After experiencing a bout of the “twisties,” as she called them, Biles acknowledged that her mind and body weren’t in sync. Her selflessness allowed teammate Sunisa Lee to step into her place and help the team win the all-around gold.

“What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us,” Lee said.

Across the globe, athletes supported Biles and started to join the critical discussion about mental health. It unlocked dialogues that were kept private and brought them into the public—permitting athletes and the rest of us to talk about our feelings and hardships. It became OK to say that we needed help, and after two years of the pandemic and rising rates of depression and suicide, this discussion became too important to overlook. 

College Athletes & Mental Health 

The conversation around mental well-being for athletes can start before they turn pro. College athletics features high-profile sports. Football stadiums host over 100,000 fans, and the annual March Madness tournament is watched by millions across the country. 

As a player underneath those bright lights, the pressure is high. We often forget that these are kids. They’re still growing and maturing—physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

Teams and coaches are starting to pay attention. Last year, with the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Pac-12.

Coach K will appear alongside other coaches in PSAs that will air during games on various networks that encourage athletes and coaches to look for those around them who are struggling with their mental well-being. 

The Future Looks Brighter Than Ever

As athletes continue to talk about their challenges openly, some modern technologies and products are helping them stay focused on mental well-being. LeBron James touts using Calm, and Kevin Love talks about the importance of meditating. 

It’s pretty powerful to see the conversation become global and know that support systems are in place. 

They say sports unites people, and we’re all in this together with mental health.

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