4 Reasons Athletes’ Mental Health Gets Overlooked   

4 Reasons Athletes’ Mental Health Gets Overlooked

Athlete laying on track covering face with hands

October 21, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:

Lane Johnson, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps – some of the worlds’ greatest athletes have bravely come forward to express the need to prioritize their mental health.

Kristine Keane, Psy.D., clinical and sports neuropsychologist, takes a dive into why athletes’ mental health is continually overlooked and what we can do to help.

  1. Mixed messaging. “We care, but are you better yet?”

    “There’s a mixed message, athletes are told that their mental health matters, but it’s not always actualizing,” Dr. Keane notes.

    “For athletes with concussions, their mental health can play a large role in their recovery, and unfortunately, some athletes are stilled questioned by their coaches, ‘When is this going to be over?’”

  2. Physical well-being prioritized over mental well-being.

    “As soon as Simone Biles announced her withdrawal, she was met with criticism, and that’s what athletes fear most, that they’ll be seen as weak or a quitter by their coaches or teammates. It’s as if their mental health isn’t as important as their physical health,” Dr. Keane adds.

    “They might not feel they have a say over their own body, or that it even matters. Simone stated that she was surprised when people actually came out in support of her.”

    the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before. 

    — Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) July 29, 2021

  3. Lack of balance for training and rest.

    “Youth sports have evolved with more training, higher levels of competition and multiple environments to compete in; it can be really difficult to achieve a balance of work and rest,” says Dr. Keane. “Many elite athletes are perfectionists, and when it comes to their mental well-being, they may put it to the back burner to focus on their physical well-being instead.”

    Athletes are commonly praised for their drive, persistence and determination, yet seldom praised for taking a well-needed rest or mental health day.

  4. Depression can be misdiagnosed as overtraining symptoms.

    Overtraining symptoms overlap with depression symptoms, including:

    • Fatigue or low energy
    • Lower motivation
    • Mood changes
    • Mental fog
    • Disrupted sleep schedule
    • Difficulty concentrating

“Athletes are particularly vulnerable to being misdiagnosed,” reflects Dr. Keane. “Some practitioners will look at symptoms solely from a physical perspective, instead of a biopsychosocial model, where we acknowledge multiple components – their biological, social and psychological well-being.”

Without looking at the full picture of an athlete’s health, a mental health condition can be misdiagnosed as a physical issue.

Tips for Parents of Young Athletes

  • Take note of any changes in your child’s mental health.

“For parents and coaches, acknowledge that these kids are under a lot of pressure and pay attention to cues and symptoms that could point to mental health changes,” shares Dr. Keane.

“Changes in personality are typically one of the first signs you may observe, along with moodiness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep disturbances, lethargic behavior or withdrawing from friends or teammates. Sometimes symptoms won’t be as obvious, but it’s just about being aware and in tune with them.”

  • Have open conversations about mental health needs.

Have open conversations with your kids and athletes, acknowledge what mental health issues are and that they are a real part of an athlete’s journey, Dr. Keane notes.

Studies show that mental health issues are just as common in athletes as the general population.

Lane Johnson, offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, took an extended absence after expressing he has been battling depression and anxiety.

“Lane came forward saying he’s kept his struggles with mental health bottled up – an incredibly common occurrence for athletes. They may say they don’t want to be perceived as a weak or lesser competitor,” Dr. Keane adds.

“It’s so important to lay a foundation of trust with our kids and athletes while they’re young – let them know it’s okay and safe to share these feelings.”


— Lane Johnson (@LaneJohnson65) October 18, 2021

  • Hold mental health and physical health to the same standard.

“Just as you wouldn’t send your kid onto the field with an unhealed fracture, you can’t ignore mental health issues, as it can cause other injuries,” adds Keane. “Mental health needs to be prioritized just as much as physical health. You can’t underscore the value in self-care, it’s a vital life skill that can be learned early on,” concludes Keane.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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