For ‘love of the game,’ athletes can be mentally resilient

As more athletes reveal their mental health challenges, some find aid in rediscovering a sport’s purpose.

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports NPStrans
Former Toronto Raptors guard Jeremy Lin: "Love will always be the most powerful driving force behind why you do anything, including sports.”

The issue of athletics and mental health gained international attention last summer when Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competing in the Tokyo Olympics. She cited mental health challenges that could have posed a physical danger if she had tried to compete. Earlier this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the French Open and passed up Wimbledon due to her own mental health concerns.

Now the ultra-masculine, highly popular NFL has begun to deal with the problem as well. Players around the football league are asking for time off to deal with mental health issues. Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, for example, recently missed three games dealing with depression and anxiety. Back in the lineup, he told Fox Sports he had been “ashamed” at first to talk about his challenge. Today he urges struggling players to confide in a close friend or family member. “There’s always help around the corner,” he says. “You realize that you have a lot more in common with everybody else around you than you think.”

Growing up male, “you’re always told to toughen up, kind of suck it up and stuff like that,” says New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche in an article on the team’s website. He’s founded the Josh Uche Foundation to help others confront the kind of mental health issues he has had to deal with. He’s encouraged. “I feel like the tide is changing, and that stigma is starting to soften up a little bit.”

Calvin Ridley, a star receiver for the Atlanta Falcons, just announced that he would step away from the NFL for a period to deal with his challenges. “I need to ... focus on my mental wellbeing,” Mr. Ridley tweeted. “This will help me be the best version of myself now and in the future.”

Helping players be “the best version of themselves” is the mantra of fictional professional soccer coach Ted Lasso on the popular TV show of that same name. In the series’ second season, a star player develops the “yips” and is unable to control his kicks following an accident in which he kills the team mascot, a dog. Conversations with a sports psychologist help him overcome his mental block and restore his love of the game – and his ability to play it.

Comparisons with the yips have been made to Ms. Biles and her concerns about “twisties,” a mental condition in which gymnasts lose the ability to control their movements in midair. Performing while dealing with the twisties is regarded as dangerous.

Former NBA star Jeremy Lin, who has confronted mental health issues of his own, now speaks to audiences on the subject. The causes of mental health challenges in athletes can be many, from the pressure of trying to live up to expectations of family, friends, and fans to the fear of injury or letting down teammates. Even at the height of his popularity, Mr. Lin says, he “was anxious because I wanted to be who everybody else wanted me to be – a mega star who came onto the scene and just broke all these records,” he recently told an audience at the Aspen Institute.

Along with seeking out support, Mr. Lin has come to realize that the best mental approach to a sport is to play “out of a love for the game. Love for people, love for your team, a love for the sport. Love will always be the most powerful driving force behind why you do anything, including sports.”

That’s a powerful message for those playing sports at any level, but especially for professionals who can be dazzled by fame and fortune – and crushed when they are lost. Pro athletes are marvels of physical well-being. Now the importance of their mental well-being is beginning to be seen.

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