Perfectionist Mentality: The Intersection of Mental Health in Professional Athletes

“You have a 44-million-dollar contract, what do you have to be depressed about?”

“Just suck it up, you’re fine.”

“You just have performance anxiety, there’s nothing wrong with you.”

When you’re an athlete, whether in the collegiate level or in the pros, the stakes and expectations set on you are high. You’re expected to develop a high level of mental toughness. Most of the time, athletes begin their career at an early age, which means they develop this mental toughness even earlier.

Though sports can be beneficial for young kids, it can also be detrimental to their mental health as they grow up involved in the sport.

The topic of mental health awareness in athletes has been a prominent one in recent years. The conversation elevated during the pandemic and as more professional athletes came forward about their own struggles. Naomi Osaka, Lane Johnson and countless other athletes came forward about their mental health. This ultimately paved the way for many athletes at all levels to speak out about their own struggles as well. 

Though progress has been made, and there is a major commonality of athletes who suffer from mental health-related issues, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding athletes being so vulnerable in the public.

Oftentimes, mental health in athletes are overlooked because it is either downplayed or athletes feel like they are suffering in silence. If an athlete mentions that they have anxiety, their parents or coaches might say it’s “just performance anxiety.”

With cases like these, that is not always the case.

According to a 2019 study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, anxiety and depression are prevalent in 34% of current elite athletes and 26% of former elite athletes.

A 2016 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that 23.7% of college athletes experience depressive symptoms and 6.3% have moderate to severe depressive symptoms during their sports season.

Jamie Terpak, a former gymnast and Student-Athlete Advisory Committee President at Temple University, is one of the many athletes who faced challenges with her mental health journey throughout her sport.

Terpak competed in gymnastics since she was 3 years old. She found her way to Temple and competed during her first two years. When her mental health started taking a toll, she stepped away from the sport to become an assistant coach instead. Being a part of SAAC is a great opportunity for her to shine light on the student-athlete mental health crisis.

“Prior to college I never thought I struggled with mental health,” said Terpak, discussing how having that perfectionist mentality athletes have contributed to her symptoms. “Sophomore year I didn’t want to go to therapy, I saw it as a sign of weakness,”

Terpak discussed how athletes develop a toxic mentality that you have to “suck it up” and “show no weakness.” This kind of mindset develops from an early age so you can focus on becoming elite as soon as possible, not focusing on the physical and mental health effects of that process.

“That was something that I struggled with and had to get out of. We’re almost too hard on ourselves because of that perfection. Never celebrating, not good enough,” said Terpak.

Now, Terpak goes to therapy and speaks up about mental health as much as possible. She said that as athletes, it’s hard for people who are not athletes or suffer from mental health to understand, but continuing to advocate on behalf of other student-athletes is one of Terpak’s goals.

Another athlete, Temple football player, Ra’Von Bonner, also discussed his early start into an athletic career and what it’s like as a black athlete facing mental health concerns.

Bonner started playing football at 4 years old. He didn’t want to at first, but his mom made him because he was the athletic type. He soon found joy in the sport as so many enriching opportunities came from it, especially playing against now starters in the NFL.

“It’s not all about the success or accolades, it’s about who you become while playing this game,” said Bonner on the rewarding aspects of the game.

Bonner comes from a family in the medical and social work fields, as his mother got her master’s in social work and his grandmother did as well with specialized focus in the medical field. Though the medical background was in the family, discussions about mental health were not.

“Being a young black man, I’m expected to be tough, push through it, fight through it,” said Bonner, discussing his journey to learning about his own mental health. “It was tough but I didn’t realize, this isn’t just my experience, this is a deeper issue.”

Bonner faced the pressure on and off the field this year, noting that there’s only so much you can tune out when you hit the field. Growing up as a black man and a black athlete, he was taught to just keep a smile and hide his weaknesses. What becomes detrimental is the fact that this idea is so common that it’s often normal to do it more than they realize.

Bonner shares his story as well as mental health awareness anyway he can. His mental health journey is part of the way he breaks down barriers for black athletes.

“Being real, being vocal. Going to therapy. That’s something that’s talked down upon.” He said, discussing what helps him in his journey.

So many times, everyday people only see athletes at the surface level of who they are. Their performance, their composure during a press conference, or who they appear to be are only the tip of the iceberg. What people fail to realize is that athletes face pressure at a much higher level than we realize.

“Athletes are not different than everyone else, but their expectations are different. In that regard, it could show up the same way, but the expectations. That people have of athletes and athletes have of themselves is way different.” said Senior Associate AD/Mental Health, Stephany Coakley. “Athletes often brush off pain, they often play through pain,”

Though it is harder to see how mental health can affect an athlete, Coakley mentioned that one of the best things anyone can do for anyone, not just athletes, is to realize the importance of the phrase, “How are you?” This phrase can do so much and open up a person about how they might be truly feeling. Coakley talked about how everyone needs to be nicer to each other, especially during the pandemic where mental illness has already been a common stressor.

One subdivision of an organization based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey is looking to connect the mind, body and soul of athletes so that mental health will be treated just as well as physical health. The NFL Alumni Performance Lab, part of the NFL Alumni Association, is working to give athletes the proper care they need mentally and physically so they can excel on the field.

“The objective of the performance lab is to really figure out a way to make what’s available – or was available – only for the top 1% of superior athletes and how we can point that to former [NFL] players and also to the community,” said CEO of the NFL Alumni Performance Lab, Dr. Charles Morris.

The Performance Lab will provide health and wellness services as well as how athletes can work on their health and wellness goals. Morris mentioned a key detail in that mental health and physical health are looked at as separate components, when they should be viewed as equal.

“The concept is, we’re going to be taking care of our own,” said Morris. “We can’t wait for someone else to come and take care of us. We need to take care of our own,”

This mentality is one that Terpak, Bonner, Coakley and Morris all share in the advocacy for athletes’ mental health awareness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: