The healthy mind of an athlete

By Cait Martin Newnham

This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.

This week’s opening ceremonies for the 2016 Summer Olympics will be celebrating the hard work and accomplishments of international athletes. While many consider the enormous physical toll training takes on competitive athletes, fewer think about stressors that can deteriorate the mental health of professional athletes. This week, Healthy Minds Canada hosted a panel discussion about sports and mental health in Toronto, moderated by Steve McAllister, managing editor of sports for Yahoo Canada.

The six panelists discussed common mental health issues in the sports industry, including eating disorders. Madalyn Marcus, PhD, clinical psychologist in the Young Adult, Eating Disorders Program at Southlake Regional Health Centre, points out that sports which require athletes to have certain body weight or shape for them to be successful can be detrimental to a competitor’s mental health.

“You can see how [eating disorders develop if] someone has the biological predisposition to developing an eating disorder and you add on that stress, you add on that pressure to be a certain ideal, especially if someone is not performing at the level they are hoping to or expecting to or their coaches or family are putting that added pressure on.” Marcus says.

Marcus also explains that if an athlete restricts their food intake to have an ideal body shape or size, and they meet their goals or receive praise from coaches or parents, then they will be motivated to continue the harmful behaviour. This negative reinforcement can then perpetuate an eating disorder because the calorie intake restriction is regarded by the athlete as helpful rather than harmful.

“For a lot of people who experience eating disorders, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of perfectionism. And then sports, you would also see that as well,” Marcus adds. “And so if someone is driven, so strong, from just a personality trait, in an area, an industry, that is also very perfectionism-driven that can exacerbate the stressors from an eating disorders perspective.”

But eating disorders aren’t the only mental health issue that athletes face. “Not only do they have to deal with daily life struggles like all of us, like significant life events, but there are some inherent stressors that they go through,” says Katy Kamkar, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Work, Stress and Health Program and Psychological Trauma Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “There’s intense training and preparation, and then a lot of anxiety-anxiety over underperforming, anxiety over letting others down, anxiety over not actually meeting our goals and standards and expectations, anxiety before competition, during competition, and at times also guilt, rumination and anxiety after competition.”

In some ways, competitive sports can be bad for mental health, but physical activity is important for improving mental health in everyone. “From an eating disorder perspective, my goal isn’t to have someone stop all activity, it’s to return to activity as is appropriate for that person,” says Marcus.

“I can assure you that putting our young children-school-aged children-in really competitive environments, if that child’s not ready or is predisposed or is suffering, we’re going to continue with these incredibly scary dropout rates that we’re seeing, especially for young girls,” adds Sarah Gallsworty, program coordinator for P.A.R.T.Y. at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “We want to make sure that we do encourage kids, and our role sometimes is educating parents and making sure they pick the right environment for their child, and the right coaches-not just a winning team. Is it an inclusive team, is it a supportive team, is it a safe team?”

Darnell Girard, a recent graduate of University of Toronto, was on the varsity football and track and field teams while completing his undergraduate degree. While he was competing athletically, he dealt with mental health issues, but he had supportive people to help him. He believes that it is important for children to be involved in sport, but “that’s where the environment does play a huge role, and where coaches and parents can play an enormous role for children, for athletes all the way up in age. Having these safe and supportive environments, so pre-competition, not just, for coaches, not just asking your athletes ‘how do your legs feel?’ and ‘are you ready for this?’, but ‘how do you feel?’.”

According to Jacob Morris, a freelance producer who made a documentary about his Canada-wide running campaign for mental health, perspective is important to being mentally healthy in competitive environments.

“One thing that’s extremely important to remember is that failure is fine. Going out and losing is okay,” says Morris. “I recently ran, a couple of months ago, the Sporting Life 10K here in Toronto, and I ran the fastest 10K that I have ever run, but about 900 people still crossed the finish line before me. Does that make me a failure? No! I still had a great day, I felt great about myself.”




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