Playing on our Minds: Elite Athletes and Mental Well-Being

Elite performance, by definition, is the privilege of a selected few. Through a combination of genetic makeup, access to opportunity, incredible levels of grit, chance, elite performers enjoy disproportionate success and popularity compared to the general population. No more is this gulf more visible than in professional sport, where physical prowess matches mental strength to create spectacles of sheer excellence that captivate our attention. These exhibitions of strength, agility, power, speed, control and focus make dreamers out of viewers. They inspire admiration, envy, and even worship, as many fervent sports fans will testify. However, the heady highs of being idolized while operating at the pinnacle of human ability also carry a debilitating burden - the expectation of perfection. 


With conversations on wellness, mental health, and mental illness in the mainstream, fewer people now need to suffer in silence, but that is only the start. For better wellbeing, we must destigmatize mental illness irrespective of privilege or context. Saddled with the expectation of perfection, elite athletes rarely have access to safe spaces to express vulnerability, distress, or doubt. The consensus that these people are a "cut above the rest" doesn't allow for the fact that elite performers live in high-pressure environments, which can take a toll. 


There's no questioning that it is a different life, alien to many of us, but that holds for its challenges, too. In lives designed around milestones, as with sports teams, or ultimate targets, as with Olympic athletes, achieving a goal can derail balance by taking away a point of focus. Troubles can surface in the face of success, such as those that LLL's 2021 Lecture Series speaker Abhinav Bindra experienced after his gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "I will always remember the day my life changed forever. I was supposed to feel elation. Instead, I felt the weight of the gold medal around my neck. I stood on top of the Olympic podium for all the world to see, but I would rather have been buried under my blanket, lying alone in bed. August 11, 2008. The only goal I had lived for over the years stood achieved. It evoked an indescribable emptiness." 


For others, mental illness creeps up without warning, crippling careers, like in the case of England cricketer Marcus Trescothick. "I didn't have a clue what was going on, except there was something drastically wrong. I thought I was going to die. And having to deal with that was a nightmare." With help, Trescothick enjoyed a lengthy career with Somerset in English domestic cricket and authored "Coming Back to Me", a captivating autobiography and award-winning seminal work on depression. 


Several of our much-loved athletes have suffered in a range of circumstances - Michael Phelps from depression, Serena Williams from post-partum depression after the birth of her child, Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta after the death of a friend, and English cricketer Sarah Taylor, whose career as the best wicketkeeper in women's, and perhaps all, cricket, stalled because of anxiety. Yet, while each of these athletes faced a unique struggle, their recoveries feature a common thread - sharing, seeking help, and taking special care of their mental health. 


For some, this meant opening up publicly. In contrast, others took a break from the spotlight (Ben Stokes and Naomi Osaka being recent examples), sought therapy, made lifestyle changes, and created plans to manage their condition. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Individuals are distinct, so are their battles, and so is their treatment. 

Athlete or not, mental health is essential to a full life. We need to ask people if they are okay, tell others if we are not, and adopt a mindset of kindness because everyone has challenges. Our idols are people, too, just like us, and we would do well to turn to those who have spoken about their mental illness as models for healing. Approach your mental health as an athlete would. Be open, identify challenges, make a plan, and, most of all, share. You are not alone. We can be better together. You just need to reach out. 

You can watch Abhinav Bindra’s 2021 Lecture Series speech and his conversation with Deepika Padukone here. If you would like to seek professional support via verified helplines, click here.

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