Mental Health- A Challenge for Men in Sport or A Life Changer?

Many years ago, it was Mohammed Ali whose license was taken away because he was ‘different’ and did not try to ‘fit’ in. Even though Ali did not suffer from serious mental health conditions, he was betrayed by his boxing association for taking a stand. Ali was just the beginning of the spiral as similar to Tyson Fury who is a British professional boxer; he is also a two-time heavyweight champion having held the World Boxing Council, Ring magazine, and lineal titles and he had never lost. A couple of years ago, Fury also had this license taken away from him; Instead of supporting him in his most vulnerable phase of life, the organisations and institutions delineated him rather than supporting him from something he loved- competitive boxing! At this point, Fury stated that he ‘did not want to live anymore.’ According to research, 34% of elite athletes suffer from anxiety and depression (Mental Health in Athletes | Mental Health Blog (banyanmentalhealth.com) . I’m guessing you didn’t know how prevalent mental health disorders were in sports.

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Men in Sport

When we think of mental health, our minds direct us straight to negativity. However, in sport, this is completely dependent on specific individual factors as there are positive outcomes where competing in sports can improve mental and emotional wellbeing. Tyson Fury is a prime example of an athlete who has experienced positive and negative effects of participating in sport on his mental health. Fury’s mental health began to spiral out of control as he was accused of cheating by doping in his match against Klitschko, this sent him into the darkest place in his life where he stated, ‘I did not want to live anymore’.

These thoughts were in addition to his heavy drinking and drug use which he used as a ‘coping mechanism’. This caused Fury to have a breakdown and get caught in a hole of depression that he struggled to climb out from. This completely took over; it tore him apart. In an interview on the Rich Eisen show, Fury quoted that he was “on the verge of suicide” and that he “had reached rock bottom”. Was there an escape route for him or was he in too deep? He was now a shattered vase that was once a strong individual.

We often talk about women’s mental health, but are we neglecting male athletes’ mental wellbeing? Our culture already asks men in sport to ‘man up’ and not ‘be a girl’. Is this something we need to start questioning? These comments are the reason as to why men don’t open up about their mental health. Even though Fury got a reality check, and he got his head in the game as he trained hard and he came back fighting even harder with even more motivation, determination, and perseverance as before to become the undefeated champion, these thoughts probably still circle his mind. In this day and age, men are supposed to be seen as strong and superior, anything below this is seen as a weakness.

It’s okay to fight your demons, it’s even better to come back fighting harder. Remember, not all heroes wear capes!

Defeating your demons

The most common mental health conditions that are usually hidden away from the crowd are depression and anxiety. However, athletes face pressures in their competitive sporting career which may lead to mental health conditions. During my research, I found a study which really choked me up as it was so raw and it wasn’t a topic that people expected to see, yet it had such a huge impact on many athletes as well as individuals. This is Andrew Flintoff’s ‘living with bulimia’ story.

Bulimia is an eating disorder and a mental health condition where people binge on food and then make themselves vomit, take laxatives or exercise excessively.

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According to experts, it is estimated that approximately 1.5 million people in the UK suffer with an eating disorder- 25% of these are males! In the sporting industry, these conditions are more common as similar to Flintoff, it was participating in sport which focused on his weight.

Flintoff’s documentary has helped younger people to feel like they’re not alone and especially men as well as James Downs who also suffers from bulimia quoted that ‘being a man with an eating disorder can be lonely’. He’s not wrong, and the reality is that bulimia as well as other mental health conditions are not talked about enough or given the attention for help as it should. In Flintoff’s documentary, he expressed that he ‘hid his condition for so long and that it was not right’ all because he was a male in the public eye, and he didn’t want to ‘be a statistic’.  This is the sad reality that both men and women can’t openly speak about their mental health without being part of media stories, research studies and other gossip stories within the sporting community.

If you are an individual suffering, or know of someone struggling, know that asking for help is strong and brave! The helpline for eating disorders is Beat. Beat It is a charity that helps people with eating disorders. Please seek support as soon as possible- Beat | The UK’s Eating Disorder Charity (beateatingdisorders.org.uk)

Attribution Theory

The attribution theory investigates what people attribute their successes and failures to- it is also linked to how they react to the situation. For example, Aaron Chalmers who is an MMA fighter was motivated, worked extremely hard as he had won his first match against Ash Griffiths and he was determined to win the second match against Corey Browning. I watched this match myself; it was intense and unfortunately Chalmers was defeated. (https://youtu.be/qsfvLaj5htg)

Accepting defeat can be destroying for any athlete, but it’s even worse when you’re in the limelight, as these athletes may feel that they have not only failed themselves, but they have also failed their fans as well. This is where dispositional attribution theory plays its part as Aaron didn’t react to his failure well as he was angry, he began to lose a lot of motivation and he started to drink heavily to wash the loss away. Dispositional attribution is where the cause of the individual’s behaviour comes from the internal characteristics rather than external contributions. Sadly, for Aaron, this is where his mental health journey began, all due to his choices from failure.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory within sport psychology is very similar; however, it is split into 3 categories: Stability of attribution, locus of causality and locus of control which helps to understand and explain the successes and failures to an athlete’s performance. This is an important theory to be educated in as it helps to break down the athlete’s façade into why they reacted in a certain way to a situation.

Game or Reality?

The sporting world can be devious, as an athlete you will most likely have pressure from fans, coaches, and the press to perform well. That’s a lie, you’re not expected to perform well, you’re expected to perform perfectly. This doesn’t just happen with elite/ famous athletes, this also happens to individual athletes in a club who are competing for a competition or a tournament. 

It’s an ongoing cycle of toxicity and it needs to end before more damage is done. Athletes perceive themselves to suit the crowd’s needs and expectations. Even with their appearance, they still feel this constant pressure.

Mohammed Ali, an inspiration to many people for multiple reasons; the main one that stands out the most is that he stayed true to himself. By doing this, Ali lost his title and had his boxing license suspended because he refused to enroll in the US army. They took away his career, but he didn’t change his morals to keep everyone else happy, he kept himself happy. Not everyone is as mentally strong as Ali is, however taking a leaf out of his book and staying true to yourself, may fix a lot of the problems.

Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’ ability to achieve a task. The theory of self-efficacy by Bandura (1977) is a psychological mechanism which is aligned for analysing changes achieved within different behaviours. It also distinguishes the expectations of efficacy and the response outcome. Self-Efficacy (Bandura – 1977) | Principles of Learning (wordpress.com)

Self-efficacy is significantly correlated with an athlete’s self-esteem and their motivation to participate. Studies show that individuals with high self-efficacy will participate more frequently and hold stronger beliefs regarding their confidence and capability. Self efficacy in sport and exercise: Determining effort, persistence and performance – BelievePerform – The UK’s leading Sports Psychology Website  With self-efficacy comes a strong willingness to be resilient and persist even when met with a diverse condition, such as battling mental health behind closed doors. It takes an extremely strong person to continue to persevere and stay determined in general, let alone when in their own tug of war between balancing mental health and performing in a sport that they really love. However, by overcoming it and gaining confidence, you will see a decrease in your stress levels and an increase in arousal levels which will play a significant role in an athlete’s performance.

Believing in yourself and knowing that you can achieve the unthinkable is the biggest part of self-efficacy, without this mindset it can be difficult to maintain motivation and therefore your mindset impacts your decisions and actions. Self-efficacy can impact you as an individual in many ways, it can especially have an impact on an individual’s mental health as if they don’t perform to their standard, they may react to the situation at the moment when their feelings are sky-high. Therefore, this can also result in them having feelings of failure as they can be disappointed in themselves, their performance and they can feel like they have let everyone down including themselves. These feelings can be the beginning of the cycle as there is a possibility that it can lead to mental health and depending on the severity, it can be difficult to overcome. The common mental health problems that self-efficacy can lead to include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD and many more. These symptoms aren’t always easy to identify immediately; however, it is recommended that you seek help with each and every one of these conditions as soon as possible to avoid the situation becoming more intense as, as an athlete, you may feel as if you’re drowning in these conditions and you can’t pull yourself back up above the water.

How to seek help

There are many opportunities to seek help with outstanding support. These can include:

Now, lets talk more positive. Sports isn’t all bad as for some individuals it is their only way of escaping reality. According to statistics, sports can have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, and ADHD, as it also relieves stress, helps sleep and enlightens your mood. Overall, this increases motivation and performance as well as boosts the athlete’s self-esteem. Participating in sport gives you a feeling like no other, it’s a reason to smile and be able to be yourself while getting physical, emotional, and social benefits from participating.

 Are you ready to uptake the challenge of being part of a team or becoming a strong individual athlete? You’ve got what it takes, if you dream it and believe it, you can do it!

 

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if only one remembers to turn on the light!

– Albus Dumbledore

About the Author

Daniella Jordan will pursue Sports and Exercise Psychology at University in September 2021. She has competed in Gymnastics and Cheerleading. 

Being an athlete was always something special to me. It gave me the confidence to become who I am today and allowed me to express myself while enjoying new opportunities. From a young age, I have been competing in gymnastics and cheerleading. My passion for sports and the happiness it gives me are indescribable. 

I want to learn how the athletes manage their emotions, the pressures they are put under and any challenges they face when they compete in the sport. I am excited to learn more!

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