Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mental health problems--when you can't call for the trainer

A few years ago, a member of the WTA told a journalist that if all of the tour's eating disorders were cured, the top 20 would change dramatically. Some players' eating disorders have been easy to discern--those players have suddenly become frighteningly thin, and then just as quickly, they have become obviously overweight, then very thin again. Others may have eating disorders that are not as obvious to onlookers.

Anxiety runs high among players in terms of performance, and that is to be expected in sport. Players who choke a lot are suffering with a form of anxiety, and this fear of performance outcome is more likely to be manifest in left-handed players, since left-handed people are more prone to being fearful than right-handed people. (Take a look at your favorite "head cases" and you'll see a pattern.)

None of this is talked about, of course, except for the occasional acknowledgment by a player that she is seeing a sports psychologist or "mental coach." Such professionals help players overcome the mental blocks that keep them from performing at their highest level. One player who has talked freely about receiving such help is Francesca Schiavone. The Italian star was in a number of finals that she didn't win, but after adjusting her mental approach, she went on to win tournaments, including the French Open.

Depression is another story, and one that is rarely discussed. Victoria Azarenka was open about the depression she felt when she couldn't play for a long time because of injury. Marion Bartoli went through something similar, as have many injured players. This is situational depression, and it is generally extinguished when a player is able to return to the sport. In fact, players often return with a renewed commitment to performing at their best level.

Sometimes situational depression among athletes can get very serious, as with skier Picabo Street, but it can generally be overcome. You don't have to be a professional athlete, in fact, to understand how hopeless it can feel to suffer an injury and go through physical pain.

But what about more serious depression that isn't related to injury? We rarely hear this subject discussed in sport, yet common sense informs us that just as many athletes experience clinical depression (and there are several kinds of clinical depression) as individuals in the general population. We know about Jennifer Capriati's experience with depression, and not that long ago, the tour lost Rebecca Marino to depression.

As all fans know, a number of top WTA players have had abusive parents. The only ones we hear about are the famous ones, but there are more. There is no way that the daughter of an abusive parent  (make that "parents" because the other one is allowing the abuse to occur) cannot suffer emotionally. Abuse (of all kinds) by parents is the main reason people do suffer emotionally. And while these elite players have shown great strength in "overcoming" the abuse, all that we as fans see is their performance on the court.

An athlete who has been very candid about her depression is golfer Christina Kim, who--I can't help but think--has helped others by her candor. But surely she isn't the only member of the LPGA who has had to cope with clinical depression, just as Marino can't possibly be the only member of the WTA who has had to cope with it.
In the non-sports celebrity world, there is often a lot of talk about mental health issues, probably because celebrities feel their every move is exposed to the public, anyway. But the professional sports world is more closed, and the socially defined role of "athlete" is considered "stronger" than the role of "actor" or "musician." Quite possibly, there is perceived to be more shame among athletes if they acknowledge mental health issues. A few years ago, you'll recall, an ATP player became enraged when he heard that people thought he might have suffered from depression.

Professional tennis players are given nutritional advice, massage and physical training on a regular basis, but I can't help but wonder who is looking out for their mental health.


Sunny nine said...

thank you diane for this piece on mental health and athletes. just the fact that their is a decent percentage of "regular" people with mental issues tells us that there are problems among athletes. i can understand that athletes are afraid to "come out" with their mental problems because the broadcasters, media and fans laud players who they term "mentally strong". it would deter players who need help. all of this reflects the bigotry towards mental health problems in the general population.

Diane said...

Thanks for reading, Sunny. And I agree with what you said.

shalini said...

Thanks For Writing this Diane. I am sure it is an issue in most sports but as Tennis players get on that lonely grind so young they are especially vulnerable.

Diane said...

Good point, shalini. Same would go for the golf tour, too.