Apr 30

Are Individual Sport Athletes More Prone to Depression?

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Sport involvement may serve as both a social and physical outlet, but it is not a safeguard against depression. It is crucial that parents and coaches remember that their athletes/children are not immune to mental illness and remain vigilant in noticing symptoms. In many cases, depression can be caused by stress; you can read here how to deal with athletes’ stress and learn ten techniques to help manage it.  

According to German researchers from the Technical University of Munich presenting at the British Psychological Society Annual Sport and Exercise Conference in Cardiff (Wales), individual sport athletes are more prone to depression than those on team sports. Their research confirms not just loneliness of the long distance runner, but a range of other depressive symptoms among ‘solo’ sportsmen and women. Prof Jürgen Beckmann, the University’s Chair of Sports Psychology states, “Individual sport athletes attribute failure more to themselves than team sports members, and shoulder the blame more than team sport players, who tend to share a diffusion of responsibility.” Researchers compared 128 young German soccer and hockey players with 71 Junior athletes in individual sports, including swimming, speed skating, and badminton. Athletes were assessed on a depression scale that measured symptoms such as guilt, sadness, and suicidal feelings. The results indicate that individual sport athletes showed significantly more symptoms than athletes playing on team sports.

The findings were replicated in a study of 162 Senior elite athletes on various German national teams. Individual sport athletes included triathletes, golfers, and cyclists. They were found to have higher symptoms of depression than players in volleyball, rugby, and soccer. Researchers also found that the individual sport athletes tended to blame themselves for sporting failure. However, this does not mean that team sport athletes are not affected by depression despite their social network of team members. Robert Enke, 32-year old German soccer goalie, threw himself in front of a train in 2009 after long battles with severe depression. He hid the signs very well from his wife, coach, and teammates. Andreas Bierman, 33-year old German soccer player, father of two, had struggled with depression for an extended period of time. He committed suicide in 2014 after suffering from depression. He had confirmed in 2012 that he had attempted to take his own life on three occasions.

Researchers at the Cardiff Conference likewise suggested that individual sport athletes take both sporting success and failure more personally than Team sport players. “The internal attribution could lead to stronger experiences of emotions such as pride (positive events) and guilt or shame (negative events) in athletes in individual sports.” They expected to find more signs of perfectionism among individual sport athletes but were surprised to discover that Team sport players actually were more ‘prone to perfectionism.’ A separate long-term study found that perfectionism and chronic stress often leads to burnout – but not depression – and that depression is linked to the lack of time to recover from stress and injury. Researchers in subsequent studies suggest that the level could be even higher among ‘solo’ athletes only. We have very high prevalence rates in swimming, for example, as they were found to have high prevalence rates for depressive symptoms. Australian Superstar Swimmer Ian Thorpe, most successful at the 2000 Olympic games was cited: “I was surrounded by people but had this intense loneliness.

Researchers also found that depressive symptoms were particularly prevalent among young athletes. According to Professor Beckmann,

…The real problem is with young athletes. Those who receive social support from parents and peers experience much less stress than those who don’t. That’s especially important during adolescence. We found that up to 20% of young athletes do have a problem with higher depression scores. In the general population, the range is between 9% and 12%. We are not diagnosing them as being depressive, but on the depression scales, they have quite a score…

Professor Beckman calls for more support for athletes to help them recognize signs of depression, and to suggest ways of ‘tackling it.’ “In Germany, we have developed a burnout  screening instrument for junior athletes.” The self-test is available online along with other resources such as advice on coping with stress and other psychological problems athletes may experience.

According to the mental health charity ‘Mind’, researchers at the Cardiff Conference underline the pressures facing athletes. Hayley Jarvis, Mind’s community program manager for sport, says: “Following the increasing number of ex-sportspeople who have spoken out about struggles with their own mental health, and some high-profile suicides, ‘Mind’ commissioned research to explore how sport governing bodies and player organisations currently deal with mental health in order to ascertain what methods and approaches are most effective. Their goal is to

…help create an environment where all sports professionals can fulfill their potential, we need to see managers, coaches, clubs, governing bodies and players’ unions all support athletes to manage their mental wellbeing…


The Andy Baddeley Story

Andy Baddeley, two-time Olympian and Britain’s former No.1 1,500m Runner, has blogged about his experiences of depression on mind.org


Speaking to The Guardian (UK), he states:

…The hardest thing about running is that you are on own before a race. When things are great that’s what’s good about it. I’m not dependent on 10 other guys being on the top of their game in order for me to be successful. But there is also nothing to fall back on. The nature of athletics is that one guy gets to win each race, and so there’s 11 or more in my event who don’t. And it is that unpredictability that’s the hard bit. It got to a point with my coach when I couldn’t express how low I was. There are not many people I get to talk to about these things.


…I’m not surrounded by a team. I don’t have to turn up to a training ground. I have often felt that I would be better suited to a team sport. What I enjoy most is group training, but the nature of distance running is that that doesn’t happen every day…


…You’re the only one who can train hard. It is a lonely decision each day, especially when it’s cold and raining. If I plan to meet someone, I find that’s powerful in terms of motivation. And it’s the days when I am not meeting someone that it takes me a lot longer than it should to get myself out of the door. Talking to someone is what has helped me. My mental health has been best when I’ve been meeting coaches and other team members…


…Having a mental health struggle doesn’t mean you are not mentally strong for a race. These things are separate. You can still run through the pain barrier but still have bad days – they are not mutually exclusive…


…People think admitting mental health problems makes them seem weak or susceptible to being beaten. But after I wrote about my experiences I felt stronger…


…I was lucky enough to see a sports psychologist when I was on lottery funding. When I was injured I saw someone privately and that helped. I deliberately chose a non-sports psychologist because I wanted more of an idea of what was normal, rather than what’s normal in elite sport…


In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 011+44+116 123

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 011+61+13 11 14

Hotlines in other countries can be found here

This article was slightly modified. It is posted by Matthew Weaver December 7, 2016, and can be located on theguardian.com


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