Stop caring about your mental health is no longer scary. No more taboos, no more secrets. No stigma. Carlos Alcaraz speaks openly about his psychologist. Carolina Marin too. Ricky Rubio goes on hiatus to recover his health, and Simone Biles steps back two years to now go three years ahead. She left Tokyo and today, more whole, she thinks about Paris. Mental health in sports has made headlines, changed the Olympics, and been a recurring theme in clubs for the past decade. As more and more elite mentions were made of depression and anxiety, the figure of the sports psychologist became essential. Now you need to put another gear. “Visibility, messages, campaigns… it doesn’t work anymore. You must take one more step forward. You have to focus on actionable actions,” explains Ben Miller, media director of Common Goal, a platform for action against major issues facing society.
“The emergencies that we have been facing for some time, such as the pandemic, have made mental health a top concern for citizens. Its prominence is due to the maturity of society towards a topic marked by shame, guilt and misinformation,” explains Rafael Tabárez, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Valencia and researcher at Cibersam. For Xesco Espar, a former FC Barcelona handball coach and high performance expert, the key lies in “athletes who dare to perform in public without fear of being stigmatized and thereby normalize it.”
The last case happened to Ricky Rubio. The basketball player decided to stop to take care of himself. It was wrong. Neither teammates nor coaches noticed this. “I was with him and we couldn’t see him,” said his friend and national team captain Rudy Fernandez. His teammate, forward Alex Abrines, also suffered from depression and was forced to leave the NBA in early 2019. He couldn’t even go to court. “It looks like an injury. This makes it impossible for you to compete. It is necessary to attach importance to the period of psychological recovery, as well as physical recovery, and this will depend on each athlete: someone needs three months, and someone needs a year. But stopping shows great courage,” explains Maria Cabrera, a sports psychologist. “People like Ricky Rubio, who explain this and act accordingly, demonstrate their maturity and the need to take care of themselves,” Tabares says.
“The most vulnerable are those who start very early, especially in the beginning, and need help to cope with the pressure of expectations, everything related to their economy and things that can change their lives,” adds Cabrera. Rubio’s precociousness is shared by former football player Irene Lopez: at 17, he won the World Cup, and at 20, he announced that he was retiring from football. She hated it: the stress, the frustration and the over-demanding of a player who made his First Division debut at 15. “For elite athletes, especially young people, public identity is closely tied to their personality,” Espar explains. A professional hit and its public image become, in the end, a personal failure.
These problems are far from special cases, but general ones. According to the WHO, about 280 million people in the world suffer from depression. And over 700,000 committed suicide. A study by the University of Toronto shows that elite athletes are more likely to experience mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety due to stress and excessive pressure. More than 41% of Team Canada’s Tokyo 2020 athletes met the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, according to the study. FIFPRO also found that 38% of active soccer players suffer from depressive symptoms. “Athletes are exposed to constant stress for a long time, and this causes them problems with adaptation, insecurity or frustration tolerance,” Cabrera points out. Match saturation is also a problem, “beyond the fact that competition outside the home makes it difficult to balance personal and professional life,” Espar explains.
The Tokyo Games were a turning point in the field of mental health in sports. Naomi Osaka has been chosen to light the cauldron a month after the world number two tennis player left Roland Garros. “I get waves of anxiety before speaking to the media,” said Osaka, who has been battling depression since 2018. The highest-paid female tennis player at those Games was eliminated in the third round. Something similar happened with Simone Biles. He stopped when he was at the top of his career, at just 24 years old. I suffered from anxiety. “Mental health is more important than sports right now,” he commented after announcing his temporary departure. Now recovered, she has returned to competition after a two-year hiatus.
Neither the most titled Olympic champion, nor the scorer that brought Spain the 2010 World Cup, are immune to depression. Andres Iniesta was also going to quit. “I got into a dead end hole. I just wanted the night to come so I could take a pill and go to sleep. Either he was looking for help, or he knew how it would end, ”explained the footballer, who continues to go to therapy. In 2009 his friend Dani Harke died and he went through a depressive period leading up to the World Cup.
Like him, Michael Phelps also suffered from depression after announcing his retirement after the London Games in 2012. “I have come to put my life in danger. In 2014, there were moments when I didn’t want to live, ”said the Baltimore shark, who thought about suicide.
Change of young
Some athletes have tried to commit suicide. Others have done it. Blanca Fernandez Ochoa, the first woman to win an Olympic medal in Spain, committed suicide in 2019. She suffered from bipolar disorder. Success came too soon for her, and at the age of 56, she was found dead in the Sierra de Cercedilla after several days of absence. Robert Encke, at the age of 32, threw himself onto the railroad tracks due to the depression he suffered after passing Barça and Fenerbahçe, and exacerbated by the death of his two-year-old daughter. Gary Speed, Andrés Biermann or Francesc Arnault have also committed suicide after episodes of mental health problems.
To avoid such cases, Common Goal, created by some 250 footballers and coaches, joined the fight for mental health, making football an engine of change. “I have never seen such interest in the subject. Everyone wants to take action,” says Miller. In England, he adds, one in four footballers has a mental health problem, a figure that has increased by 49% in five years. “We work with a two-part model: resources and immediate help, and providing tools and building a network to help colleagues and people in the community,” says Miller.
For him, action must occur from top to bottom and vice versa. Youth, fan groups, managers, staff and the elite. “The power of sport is unique. We must work on radical changes,” says the person in charge of the platform. For Cabrera, the goal is prevention: “The focus of sports psychologists is to improve skills, not to intervene when a problem occurs.” Alcaraz, Marin and Biles have something in common: a new generation hurricane. “Young people, children of the generation of Zetas and Alphas, feel comfortable talking about mental health. It gives me confidence that we will turn the tide in time,” explains Miller. A new wave of elite athletes who are calmly talking about what’s going on in their head as well as what’s going on with their bodies. There is no fear. No taboo. There is every day. Now it remains to act.
You can follow EL PAÍS Sports on facebook And Twitteror register here to receive our weekly newsletter.