Published on July 25th, 2016 | from CAMH

Mental Health in the World of Sport

By Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health Program


Dr. Kamkar and Canadian Olympic gold medalist in ice hockey, Cheryl Pounder.

One in five individuals is affected by mental health problems; no one is immune, including athletes. Despite being perceived as physically fit, active and healthy, athletes can suffer just as much as everyone else from mental health problems.

Stigma in sports

When athletes are physically injured, they are treated by a team of health care professionals to ensure fast and healthy recovery. When they suffer from a mental health problem however, they are likely to suffer in silence and isolation. While sport psychology is gaining in traction, the stigma attached to mental illness is predominant in the athlete world due to the emphasis on appearing physically and mentally fit. The latter can perpetuate silent suffering and self-isolation.

It is time to change our attitude surrounding mental illness in the realm of sports and athletics.


Seeking help is a sign of strength, courage and resilience.

Stress related to sport

In addition to facing daily challenges and significant life events, athletes have to deal with stressors inherent to the sports world, including:

  • Physical and mental preparation
  • Injuries and pain related to sport
  • Anxiety over results and expectations
  • Fear of letting others down
  • Poor performance
  • Seeking recognition and worries of not obtaining it
  • Rivalry
  • Pressure to perform well
  • Training long and hard and not achieving set goals or high standards
  • Inability to attend life events or activities due to training and preparation
  • Burning out due to exhaustion, age or repeated injury

Another phenomenon reported by athletes is the “post-competition blues” or “post-event depression”. After a prolonged period of intense training and preparation, everything suddenly seems to stop after the competition. There is no longer a strict structure and routine to follow; no longer a schedule or deadline for training; no longer an immediate need to maintain top physical form. All those changes in life that occur after the competition is over can have an impact on mood and lead to emotional difficulties and psychological symptoms.

Tips for coping with stress

Resilience is very important in the work of sport as athletes need to use a variety of psychological skills and strategies to manage the daily stressors and pressures they go through.

Here are some tips and strategies to help alleviate stress, which may not just be confined to the world of sports:

  • Introduce variety or change into what we are doing, in order to reduce boredom and burnout, helping maintain excitement. Examples could include a change in schedules or venues for training
  • Be flexible with expectations and goals, revising when needed to better adapt to changes and challenges that might occur. Alleviate the constant high pressure of winning and instead focusing on enjoying the process and the moment
  • Take time off to rest and relax
  • Have fun and enjoying yourself
  • Develop confidence in yourself. Recognize that your own strength and resourcefulness help increase your self-confidence and ability to problem solve.
  • Recognize your hard work and strengths regardless of the outcome to maintain a healthy view of yourself
  • Build healthy and supportive relationships, in particular among teammates
  • Accept circumstances that cannot be changed, and focus more on the situations you have control over.
  • Develop realistic goals. We can move towards our goals by taking gradual steps and appreciating each step taken.
  • Take care of yourself by paying attention to your needs and feelings.

Prior to the competition: it helps to practice visualization by focusing on one’s goals and visualizing yourself going through the steps to achieve the goals. Accept the anxiety and normalize the physical symptoms of anxiety – remind yourself of all the learnings and positives and strengths, that positives will remain regardless of the outcome. Do not measure your sense of self-worth based on the outcome. Finally, engage in positive self-talk, do a nice warm up, eat a healthy meal and allow yourself time to get ready.

During the competition: again remind yourself that positives will remain regardless of the outcome. Focus on the moment and focus on your breathing.

After the competition: identify the things you did well and focus on the positives you have accomplished and your strengths. You can identify the things you want to further work on in the future, but focus on what you have control over; reduce any tendency to ruminate on things you have no control over. Enjoy the fact that the competition is over, accept that your body needs to rest and take a break, and regardless of the outcome, celebrate your hard work! Engage in activities that you have not been able to engage in during the intense training and preparation. Now that the event is over, focus on the present time and set your own daily structure by setting time for relaxing, leisure and meaningful activities. And spend time with family and friends.

Katy will be a panelist at an upcoming Healthy Minds lunch & learn seminar on sports and mental health on July 27. Register here:

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