For most fanatics, sports is more than just a pastime, it is almost a religion and their favourite athletes are demigods. These idols often credited with a larger-than-life persona – gladiators who are hard wired to transcend adversities and obstacles.
Beyond the awe-inspiring halo, these supposedly superhuman beings are mere mortals. They have emotions and wrestle with the same complex issues and mental illnesses as the rest of the lesser mortals, more often, even failing to cope.
As more athletes get overwhelmed and spiral out of control, issues arise as to why athletes’ mental health is not taken as serious as physical issues or injuries. Are there misconceptions that if you are a strong and brave athlete, you are beyond mortal frailties?
Of recent, there has been a number of elite athletes who have come out in the open about their mental struggles. From world stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, to Botswana’s our own little known karate kid Leonard Modise, it is safe to say athletes are human too.
The latter, things allegedly unraveled after he witnessed his close friend commit suicide. In the aftermath of the harrowing incident, Modise started abusing drugs as a way to mask the trauma he went through. Looking at his heydays, in 2015, Modise was among among the country’s creme dela creme.
According to Dr Tshepang Tshube, a sport scientist and psychologist at the University of Botswana, nobody questions an athlete taking time to heal from a sprained ankle or knee, because they are visible. He added that mental illnesses can be as limiting as physical injuries, as they are ignored in the name of pride.
“Mental issues may not be diagnosed right away as the symptoms are not visible. However, failure to notice them and get help for the athlete may pose a threat to them.”
“Being an athlete can be incredibly challenging for a person’s mental health. The pressures to perform well in the game and outside of the game, may increase chances of a mental breakdown. As much as athletes are given time to heal for physical injuries, they also need time for mental healing,” he opined.
Dr Tshube further added that mental health should be prioritized and athletes should be given the necessary support for them to heal on the sidelines. He noted that taking time away can be beneficial for an athlete to heal, hence the stigma of being a quitter should be kept away from them so that they heal permanently.
“The solution for mental illnesses is seeking help, open acknowledgement and talking about how you are feeling. This can bring about closure as an athlete embarks on a recovery journey,” Dr Tshube added.
He said while it is scary for an athlete to reach out for help, people around them should intervene once they notice signs of mental health problems. “An athlete may talk to a close friend, family member or coach, or even make an appointment with a therapist or counselor to help you identify sources for stress and how to manage your symptoms. Practise making time for oneself such as yoga, meditating, taking a walk, playing with your pet or listening to soothing music or one’s favorite songs,” he said.