Thanks to a string of high-profile sports stars going public, leagues and teams started developing plans to support players’ emotional health. Ahead of the 2019 season, the NFL and NBA launched initiatives that require all teams to have at least one mental health professional on retainer to treat clinical issues impacting the players.
Wes Cain, co-founder of The Becoming Athletics and a clinical mental health counselor from Asheville, North Carolina, believes pro athletes are prone to depression and other mental health conditions because of the enhanced focus on perfectionism in the sports world.
“Everyone has their own pressures, but I don’t have millions of people watching what I do every day, analyzing my every move,” Cain says. As invincible as they may seem, “they are not robots or products, they are people,” he adds. “That extremist culture creates a recipe for mental health issues, which are then internalized with no healthy release.”
When players like Love share their vulnerability with the world, the stigma around mental health dissipates.
While exercise in moderation is scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety through the release of endorphins, Cain warns that even everyday athletes are at risk of fitness-induced mental health issues depending on their motivation for working out. “If you are using it to fill a void for something else such as anxiety, addiction, or anger, then you also have to address the bigger issue in other ways,” he says.
The risks vary based on your movement of choice. A recent study shows you’re more likely to report anxiety and depression if you partake in a solo activity like running or tennis than you are if you play a team sport. The reason: People who train alone tend to internalize failure, set intense goals for themselves, and pursue perfection, the psychologists found.
Cain says that you can establish a healthier relationship with exercise by taming your inner critic and acknowledging that imperfection makes you human.
To de-stigmatize mental health hurdles in sports, three pro athletes opened up about their own experiences. Here are their stories.
“I have struggled with anxiety and depression since my mid-teens. I thought I needed to be white to be beautiful, so I’d dye my hair blonde and wear blue contact lenses to be like the cool, pretty girls. I’m six-foot-eight and I wanted to shrink myself. It took me a long time to realize that I am myself for a reason.
I started self-medicating with alcohol, and eventually prescription drugs, to escape from my issues. I had my first sober year since starting to use when I was 18, but being drafted by a pro basketball team set everything off again.
In 2016, I went on anti-anxiety meds. When the Rio Olympics ended, I thought I didn’t need them anymore, so I stopped taking them and went back to partying. One night, I was crying uncontrollably and battling the voices in my head telling me, ‘You’re not worthy. Your life is pointless.’ I called my mom and told her I needed help.
I was put on suicide watch, which was a massive wakeup call for me. Having emotions has been deemed as weak, but I think being vulnerable is the strongest thing you can do. If you bottle things up, you can’t be true to yourself.”
“I had my first panic attack during my first season playing football at UCLA. I was twenty and felt as if my whole world was being turned upside down. Looking back now, I realize I was going through a challenging time, but in the moment, I just felt like I was going crazy and losing my mind.
I was given a prescription for an antidepressant. Still, I didn’t get a healthy explanation for what I was dealing with or the chance to talk about it. There was so much shame and covering up, which amplified the fear I was feeling.
I poured my anxiety into football and the panic attacks eased for a few years. That is, until the beginning of my second season with the San Diego Chargers, after I made the uninformed decision to taper off my meds while coming back from three major offseason injuries.
We were playing the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin and I was sharing a hotel room with defensive end Igor Olshansky. I suddenly had a massive panic attack that made me want to bolt out of the building and run down the street, just get the hell out of there. The fact that I felt I couldn’t talk to Igor about it and had to hide what I was feeling intensified everything. It was terrifying. I called my therapist, who was able to talk me down from a level-ten fear so I could sleep. I actually played well the next day.
I’ve dabbled with therapy throughout my career and continued talking to professionals when I retired from the NFL in 2012. It’s been very healing for me to be more in touch with myself.
Since then, I think the football community has done a much better job of recognizing that players need help to maintain mental health, not feel like they have to keep their problems hidden in a dark room. I have overcome my struggles and now, I work as a professional mental health counselor so I can help others. People need to know that we are not superhuman, even though we were taught to act like we are.”
“I have absolutely dealt with depression during my career. I also appreciate the role it has played in my life. I think it has driven me at times, and it spurs my artistic side. I get a lot of anxiety as I’m always thinking about the future and worrying about what is next, especially during my early twenties when I left wrestling for a few years. I had always identified as ‘Rebecca the wrestler,’ and when I was without that, I thought, ‘What am I?’
I think people suffer from anxiety more today than ever before because they are constantly comparing themselves to others. It’s tough. We have to drown out that comparison as much as we can and know that we are good enough.
It took years of going to therapy, reading books, and taking action before I overcame my depression. I believe you have a better chance of acting your way into different thinking than thinking your way into different actions. Once you get in motion and force yourself to go beyond your comfort zone, you gain confidence. It’s about constantly taking those baby steps. Then you realize, ‘I can do this,’ and you survive.”