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Self-Care for Athletes: 5 Practical Tips to Improve your Mental Wellness

After a delay of one year, the summer of 2021 Tokyo Olympics is finally here! Restricted access and absent fans have changed how the Olympics look this time. Athletes have had to deal with their ‘“athletic identity’’ stripped away due to the pandemic. More notably, mental health has been at the forefront all over the media. Athletes such as United States gymnast Simone Biles and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka have both stepped down to prioritize their mental health and overall well-being, which shows us how important it is to be in control of our mental wellness.

In a press interview Simone Biles gave, she encouraged others to “put mental health first. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to”. Athletes represent the peak of human physical potential. As a former high school and collegiate athlete, let me be the first to normalize and validate how challenging this is. Mental illness affects 35% of athletes, which may create stress, eating disorders, burn-out or depression, and anxiety.

Put mental health first. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. -- Simone Biles

Athletes have to face daily stress and anxiety or “pre-game jitters”. There are many athletes who have chosen their mental health to be their top priority. As a former athlete, I believe that mental wellness means being fully balanced. Physical health is important and vital for athletes, but without a focus on your mental wellness, it is difficult to achieve athletic success.

Most athletes undergo “tough love”. Which is the notion that in order to be a better athlete, the coach may display no mercy to his/her athletes, to push them to be better. In competition sports, tough love is a necessary strategy for the coach to use to push their athletes to new levels. The problem with always displaying tough love is that athletes begin to believe that harsh love is the only way they can succeed in anything, beyond sports. This has a huge impact on athletes’ mental health and decreases self-compassion.

Athletes such as Michael Phelps and Raven Saunders have publicly spoken about their own battles with mental health and the lack of self-compassion they have for themselves. Self-compassion is accepting ourselves completely the way we are. This means we should be kind to ourselves without judging our own every move. A perfectionist mindset is healthy for an athlete’s ego, but it can also disrupt a healthy lifestyle and possibly lead to stress and depression for not living up to the "perfect standard".

If you are an athlete or know of an athlete who is struggling with stress, anxiety, and overall mental health, these tips may help to prioritize athletes’ well-being. Here are 5 tips that helped me as a former athlete to improve my mental health during stressful times.

1.) Accept your feelings

We are one year into the pandemic, and for many of us athletes that means we are facing an unprecedented amount of stress, anxiety, loss of control, fear, and for some, isolation. Suppressing our emotions will leave us feeling tense and anxious. This can lead to a decrease in performance, motivation, and lack of focus. A quick exercise that anyone can do is:

First, identify what you’re feeling.

Second, accept your emotions and show yourself some compassion.

Third, write them down in a mood journal.

Fourth, take a deep breath.

And fifth, give yourself some personal space away from others.

By practicing this exercise whenever you feel stressed, you are reclaiming control of your emotions and mental health. This leads to a better focus on whatever is required of you.

2.) Take care of your physical health

This may seem like a joke to athletes, many of which are in great shape. But, physical health does not always mean the number of hours you spend exercising. Getting a healthy amount of sleep and eating well are also huge factors in maintaining physical health. When eating healthy and getting plenty of rest, you have fewer mood fluctuations and an overall more positive outlook.

3.) Engage with your teammates or support network

During your sport season, you probably spend a significant amount of time with your teammates. Talking with teammates that you trust about your emotions will most likely make you feel better. During tennis season, I sometimes have pre-game jitters. To help ease my anxiety, I enjoy talking with my teammates as they offer support and reassurance. Those who play single-person sports, try to talk to those who support you. Whether that be your coach, private mentor, parents, family members, or friends, let them know how you are feeling as opposed to isolating negative thoughts to yourself. Trusting that your team and support network has your back will improve your mental health and boost your self-esteem.

4.) Focus on what you can control

Having a strong athletic identity leads to a strong sense of self-confidence. Athletes who find themselves in a world outside of sports often have a hard time adjusting to their new environment. They may feel frustrated, experience mood swings, and feel a loss of identity. We may not be able to always control the outcome of the game, but what we can control are our personal performance and mental wellness. Get in the habit of following a routine, such as focusing more on self-care in your life. Journaling, talking with loved ones, and doing activities that make us happy increases our well-being and serotonin levels. If you are interested in more self-care tips, click on the link below!

5.) Remember to have fun!

As athletes, we get so caught in winning that we forget to stop and enjoy the moment. Sports are meant to be fun and enjoyable for everyone, especially the players. It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to have your bad days. You’re human! Play because you love the game, not because someone else wants you to play.

To sum up, even the best athletes go through bad days. Regardless of what sports you play, remember to prioritize your mental health. And please keep in mind that, “Stepping away from the things that do not serve as an essential practice for your wellbeing, regardless of how mandatory society makes those things, is smart, not problematic”. - Analis Bailey

By: Francesca Mina


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