Issues and Challenges

Mental Health Issues of Women in Competitive Sports

Mental health for women participating in highly competitive sports is a growing concern. Today, many researchers can be seen studying sports psychology in detail. This issue  came into the limelight after professional athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Simone Manuel, Raven Saunders, and others announced that their mental health was deteriorating due to a number of reasons related to their respective sport. A new study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that sportswomen are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression in comparison to sportsmen, which typically results in withdrawal, loneliness and sometimes suicide. Over the past decade, the cases of mental health problems related to competitive sports has increased significantly in female athletes. 
People have the misconception that athletes and Olympians are ‘superheroes’. This has multiplied over time because several studies state that exercising regularly and/or participating in sports is associated with reduced depression. Studies also conclude that success in sports allows individuals to be more confident in life. But the reality is different. It is difficult to assimilate that athletes can struggle from the same mental health issues as the general population and sometimes more. A consensus statement related to mental health and anxiety published by the International Olympic Committee in 2019, detailed: “The World Health Organization (WHO) states that mental health is an integral and essential component of health. According to  WHO, health is defined as a complete state of physical, emotional and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. While anxiety is explained as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worrying thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure, etc.
Women in competitive sports, like all athletes, usually suffer from anxiety when they have to perform at an event and the results are uncertain. Other than performance anxiety, social isolation and the absence of family and friends amid COVID-19 has resulted in depression and anxiety for many athletes who competed in the Tokyo Olympics and they were seen struggling to cope with these challenges. American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team gymnastics final. She said that this was her attempt at protecting “her body and mind.” The 24-year-old explained, “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and wellbeing.” Tennis player Naomi Osaka also withdrew her name due to the same reason. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka posted on her social media. Gold medalist Simone Manuel — American swimmer specializing in sprint freestyle — was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome after suffering from poor performance, fatigue and depression. Overtraining plays a significant role in hormonal changes, irritability, depression and anxiety in sportswomen.
It is important to understand that an athletes positive performance is directly associated with three traits: resilience, mindfulness and sleep. There are several factors that can negatively affect sportswomen’s mental health such as stress of competing and performance anxiety, overtraining, intense scrutiny, body image, psychological response to injury and illness, bullying, eating disorders, etc.
Stress of Competing and Performance Anxiety
Anxiety before or during competitions can interfere with an athlete’s performance. Some athletes are prone to feeling the effects of anxiety but others are more likely to experience anxiety that interferes with their ability to perform well. According to a study published in 2019, female and individual sports athletes presented higher levels of general sports anxiety.
Overtraining has both short and long-term negative effects in sportswomen. It can result in decreased motivation, infection and injury due to a combination of changes in hormones, suppression of immune system, physical fatigue and psychological changes. If the intensity, volume, or frequency of training exceeds the amplitude of an athlete then it may result in extreme fatigue, injury, anxiety or illness. It can also result in an overuse injury, which is defined as micro-traumatic damage to bone, muscle, or tendon caused by repetitive stress without adequate time for recovery.
Intense Scrutiny
Intense scrutiny is another factor that results in poor mental health and depression. The Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined during Tokyo Olympics because their shorts were too long, British Paralympian Olivia Breen was told that her briefs were too short and Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing was not allowed to wear the special swimming cap made specifically for natural black hair. This is not new, female athletes have been scrutinized over their choice of sportswear for decades.
Body Image
Body image plays an important role in an athlete's life especially for sportswomen. British sprint track and field athlete Anyika Onuora shared that she wore baggy clothes because people called her fat. Focusing on body rather than talent has caused some talented young athletes to go into mental stress and made them decide to drop out of sports.
Psychological Response to Injury and Illness
Psychological and emotional reactions play a key role in athletic injury rehabilitation. Several factors should be considered when treating injured athletes. Building trust and creating a bond with an injured athlete is important. Educating the athlete about the injury, identifying misinformation about the injury, preparing the athlete and coach for the recovery process and encouraging the use of specific stress coping methods is vital for recovery.
Bullying in sports causes the same harm as bullying in school. In both cases, victims feel hurt, alone and depressed. Bullying causes negative effects on physical and mental health of sportswomen.
Eating Disorders
Anorexia or eating disorder affects an athlete's mental and physical health. Individuals suffering from this condition take in a limited number of calories despite high levels of physical activity. This behavior leads to a very lean body type and low weight. Social influences, performance anxiety and negative self-appraisal contribute to female athletes developing eating disorders. Alice Regan, a former soccer player who struggled with anorexia says: “Athletes are especially known for competitive tendencies, which can in turn affect mental health.”
Mentioned above are some factors that contribute to mental health issues in sportswomen. Addressing these issues is of utmost importance. It needs to be acknowledged that athletes are also humans. Creating awareness about mental health for female athletes is vital because they are constantly compared to male athletes. Mental health issues should not be ignored or criticized. They should be dealt with diligence for all athletes, particularly in Pakistan where sportswomen are already under a lot of societal stress. Focusing on their mental health is vital so that they can excel in their chosen fields. HH

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