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Sport & Stigma

Despite the newfound prominence of sport psychology, there are surprisingly few peer-reviewed studies about sports psychology interventions among elite athletes. Part of the reason for the lack of study on the issue is athlete opposition. Put simply, athletes build careers based on mental fortitude. From a very early age, they learn that they need to be “mentally tough”; they cannot show any weakness to their opponents. And perhaps more importantly, they cannot show any weakness to their teammates or coaches. Even if not naturally present, this overwhelming desire to act tough is ingrained in youth athletes at one point or another. For these reasons, athletes have a strong aversion to psychological intervention. They do not want to appear sick; they want nothing to do with the stigma around psychological interventions.

On stigma

The textbook definition of “stigma” comes from Erving Goffman, who defines the term as an “attribute that is deeply discrediting”1. A discrediting feature can be something visible, such as skin colour or weight, or something that discredits if found out, such as mental illness or criminal record2. Research shows that attitudes towards particular stigmas have shifted greatly over time. One such stigma that is currently undergoing a major transition is mental illness, and much of the public discussion about mental illness has centred around professional athletes.

Mental illness is “a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking”. Sometimes, mental illnesses are watered down in the public discourse and referred to more generally as “mental health”, although that term can mean something as innocuous as “self-care”. For this article, we are talking about more acute psychological issues. The most high-profile “mental health” case of the past summer was Simone Biles. For the few who do not know who Simone Biles is, she is one of the greatest athletes of her generation and an all-time great gymnast. Entering Tokyo, she was expected to continue her utter domination of the sport, but she unexpectedly withdrew from five of her six finals. Her withdrawal shocked the sporting world. Biles later revealed that she was suffering from “the twisties”, which is a phenomenon that affects gymnastics and drastically affects their spatial awareness. Despite the funny name, the twisties can cause athletes serious distress and make the sport dangerous.

Even the GOAT

One disheartening aspect of the Biles story is how much criticism she received for her “lack of mental toughness”. If someone widely considered to be the greatest of all time in her sport can receive such criticism, then that means the stigma around mental health issues is alive and well. But more and more players are coming forward. Naomi Osaka, Paul George, and Kevin Love have publicly discussed their mental health struggles in recent years. If more players keep coming forward, then the stigma attached to mental illness will decrease. Maybe there will be less aversion to psychological interventions, and more people who suffer from mental illnesses will feel less alone.

1Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
2Matthew Clair, Harvard University, Core Concepts in Sociology (2018).