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Why Mental Health Matters in Sports

Athletes suffer quietly for a multitude of reasons, from wanting to appear capable and strong, to feeling embarrassed or afraid to say they are not able to perform.

When Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from athletic obligations this year, citing mental health priorities, the world was rocked. The athletes received both heavy praise and criticism for their decisions to withdraw—Osaka from interviews at the French Open, Biles from the Olympic team event—and put themselves and their health before tradition, pressure, and expectation. 

Though the topic of mental health has been more widely discussed and accepted over the years, there is still often extreme pressure to push oneself beyond the limits—something that can be dangerous, leading to serious injury. Athletes suffer quietly for a multitude of reasons, from wanting to appear capable and strong, to feeling embarrassed or afraid to say they are not able to perform. Having two high-profile athletes come forward and assert their right to care for themselves first, and be entertainment second, made a huge statement.

Mental health shouldn’t be a priority only at the highest echelons of sports—any athlete at any level should know they have the right to care for themselves. We chatted with Lindsey Parrot, the SJND women’s volleyball coach, and Leilani Wagner, the SJND athletic director about what students can do to ensure they can play their best. 

Why Mental Health is Important

“I am a firm believer in holistic health,” Leilani said. “We are much like cars, where if one part of the car isn’t working, then it’s not going to work to its best ability. So in athletics in particular…we’re not just taking care of our mental health, we’re also taking care of our physical health, spiritual, and emotional health. It all comes together in one package.”

For two of the world’s elite athletes to take a stand and put their mental health before public expectation showed the athletes and spectators alike that mental health should be a priority. In some cases, prioritizing mental health is an issue of safety—something that no athlete or person should put at risk for the sake of others. 

“For Olympic players to step up and say, ‘I’m also a human being, I’m not just this idol that you see on TV,’ [is really important],” Lindsey shared. You see someone on TV, and you forget that they’re a human being who is just a regular person, who also has other interests and lives and relationships and things like that, but also is a human being who has anxiety or who maybe has had trauma in their life that they need to deal with.”

Know Your Boundaries 

Trouble (and injuries) can ensue if you don’t know your personal boundaries. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable doing something and to voice that concern. Standing up for yourself is protecting yourself.

“It’s important that players know their own personal boundaries,” Lindsey said. “A lot of times people take advantage of others because someone doesn’t stand up for their personal boundaries or doesn’t set personal boundaries. I think that it can create excellence, but it can also destroy people.”

Lindsey adds that players should remember that it’s ultimately their life and their career that is at stake—no one else can determine it for them. While some thrive by pushing boundaries, others don’t, and that’s okay. 

It can be difficult, however, to stand up for our boundaries, especially if we fear being perceived as incapable or weaker than fellow players. Hopefully, our coaches and teachers create environments where we feel comfortable voicing our concerns and boundaries. But, in the off-chance that’s not the case, it’s still important to stand our ground, according to Lindsey.

“I think that it’s just important for them to have confidence that they know what they’re doing, and not to worry so much about what other people think,” she said. “There’s always going to be haters, you know. Knowing your boundaries is important because it’s you and it’s your life, and you’re the one living it.”

soccer team huddling

Self-Care Tips for Mental Health 

So how can student-athletes care for their mental health? Leilani and Lindsey share self care tips for mental health that anyone can try.

1. Time Management

Leilani advocates for time management. This doesn’t only entail ensuring that you can fulfill all your commitments. It also means assessing your obligations and deciding whether or not you’ve got too much on your plate. 

“It’s been this very grind mentality and very hustle mentality,” Leilani acknowledged. She encourages students to ask themselves about the “why” behind their involvement with different activities. “There’s so much focus on all these extracurricular activities to fill up your application, your resume, whatever you want to call it, and we forget why we’re doing the things. Does it actually benefit us or is it just because I want to put this on my college resume?”

2. Practice Mindfulness

The other thing that both Leilani and Lindsey suggest is the practice of mindfulness. This can include meditation and breathing exercises. 

“I think our breathing is a very underutilized tool,” Leilani remarked. “Many of us have a shallow breath and we’re actually not getting enough oxygen in our body. There are really great breathing techniques to help calm the body.”

3. Take Time to Play

Finally, both faculty members encouraged play. Yes! Play—do something that brings you joy. It doesn’t have to be high commitment, rather, it’s as simple as reading a book or watching a movie. 

But, above all, the best thing you can do to care for your mental health is to know that change will happen—and it’s okay.

“It’s okay for a change to happen; it’s good for change to happen,” Leilani said. “I think there’s a Confucius quote that says the only thing that’s constant is change. [When we are] okay with change or to allow change, [we can] recognize that it doesn’t have to be scary.”

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