Successful elite athletes are the great heroes of our time. We admire and praise their spectacular feats and we can come to think that they are perfect, invulnerable, that their mental strength is limitless and an inspiration to the mortals who adore them, and that, therefore, we must always expect from them that exceptional performance that makes them (almost) gods. The problem, in many cases, is that in order to respond to that excellence that the rest of us expect, they themselves feel forced to perform at a very high level every time they compete in a schedule full of tournaments, with hardly any time to disconnect and recover emotionally. of the effort made.
The continuous demand and pressure to perform at their best require almost permanent psychological overexertion from athletes, and this, despite the fact that they are mentally strong people, causes progressive wear and tear that can lead to mental exhaustion and psychopathological illnesses. That is when we discover that they are not those gods that we idolize, but human beings who as such are emotionally vulnerable and can suffer problems that affect their mental health. What problems are those? Above all, anxiety and depression, two serious diseases that must be distinguished from the anxiety and discouragement that we can suffer on a daily basis in response to everyday situations that affect us.
Anxiety, with or without panic attacks, can develop from feeling powerless to take on and achieve the demanding challenges that sport poses. This can be due to the mental exhaustion just mentioned, unrealistic goals, serious setbacks, or other adverse experiences that undermine self-confidence and self-esteem. Physiological symptoms (palpitations, tremors, vomiting, insomnia…) and above all cognitive (worry, anguish, fear, guilt…) are almost always present, causing enormous suffering that the athlete largely alleviates when he avoids or escapes from situations. more committed sports The downside is that avoidance and escape, without proper treatment, while alleviating in the short term, strengthen the disease instead of weakening it. Depression can coexist or relieve anxiety when the athlete perceives that he cannot avoid this suffering if he continues to face sporting challenges, and this makes him feel bad about himself, and his perfectionist idea of himself, as a strong and invulnerable person, fades. collapses.
Depression can also develop after important successes, when athletes run out of goals that interest them enough, stop valuing what they have achieved and perceive that they will not be able to respond to what is now expected of them. It is (relatively) common after withdrawal after a successful career, which explains some serious cases that have led to suicides. Of course, these illnesses can also arise from non-sports problems (loss of loved ones, divorces…) especially if they are added to other problems related to sports.
Solutions? In the first place, the preventive work of psychologists is important before these diseases appear. Athletes must learn to disconnect mentally and develop skills to control their expectations and manage the stress that is present in their activity. And once the disease is present, it is necessary to put it in the hands of clinical psychologists, preferably with experience with athletes. It is one thing to go through an emotional rough patch and another to have a mental illness. When the latter happens, you have to take it very seriously and go to the specialist.
Chema Buceta is a doctor in Psychology, professor and director of the Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology at UNED and basketball coach.
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