After the Whistle Blows: The Importance of Identity and Mental Health for Christian Athletes
In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of mental health in sports. Athletes are speaking out about their struggles with mental health, and sports organizations are beginning to take notice. The National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, has implemented a mental
health policy that requires all teams to have a licensed mental health professional available to players. The policy also requires teams to provide mental health education and resources to players and staff.
Other sports organizations are following suit. The National Football League (NFL) has launched a mental health initiative that includes a hotline for current and former players, and the National Hockey League (NHL) has partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to provide mental health resources to players and staff. Mental health is a crucial aspect of overall health and well-being, and it is especially important for athletes. The demands and pressures of competing at a high level can take a toll on an athlete’s mental health, and without proper attention and care, it can have lasting negative effects on their performance and quality of life. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons why identity and mental health are so important especially for Christian athletes, the unique challenges they face, and the steps they can take to maintain good mental health and perform at their best.
The Connection Between Mental Health and Performance
For athletes, mental health and performance are closely intertwined. When an athlete is feeling good mentally, they are more likely to perform at their best. On the other hand, when an athlete is struggling with mental health issues like stress, identity questions, anxiety, depression, or burnout, their performance can suffer. Research has shown that mental health issues can impact an athlete’s ability to focus, make decisions, and perform at their peak. Additionally, athletes struggling with mental health issues, like “high levels of stress, whether on or off the field, are at greater risk of being injured” (Herring et al., 2017).
Athletes also face unique challenges that can impact their mental health. Constant training and competition can lead to physical and mental burnout and exhaustion, making it difficult for athletes to maintain a positive mental state.The pressure to win, scrutiny from fans and the media, and the mental and physical demands of their sport can all take a toll. Without proper care and attention, these challenges can lead to other issues, let alone all that may come along with sustaining an injury.
All athletes face a unique set of challenges when it comes to mental health. One of the biggest challenges is the pressure to win. Athletes are often judged solely on their performance, and when they don’t perform up to expectations, it can be devastating. They are expected to be perfect both on and off the field, and any misstep can result in negative attention and criticism.
It is no surprise that the pressure surrounding athletics can cause athletes to spend hours and hours honing their skills. Naturally, these athletes begin to view their performance and role in their sport as a core piece of their identity. This can be a great thing! However, when “life happens” and something changes their ability to perform (such as injury), or transitioning out of sports, it can create some real hardship and confusion.
Athletes often spend years or even decades training and competing at a high level, and when their athletic career comes to an end, they may struggle to adjust to a new identity and purpose.
For someone ending an athletic career, the relationships they have formed over the years, the routines they have implemented, the dedication to training their body, and the identity they have built can all seem like it won’t help them for the rest of their life. It is not uncommon for athletes to even experience a period of grief as they transition into life after sports.
Mental Health Challenges Faced by Athletes in Transition
Athletes in transition may face a range of mental health challenges. Some of the most common challenges include:
Depression: Athletes in transition may experience feelings of loss and grief, which can lead to depression.
Anxiety: The uncertainty and stress of transition can lead to anxiety, which can impact an athlete’s mental health and well-being.
Identity issues: Athletes may struggle to adjust to a new identity and purpose once their athletic career comes to an end.
Isolation: Athletes may feel isolated and disconnected from their former teammates and coaches, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
Navigating these mental health challenges requires a strong support system, a commitment to self-care, developing a vision of their personal values, and a willingness to seek help when needed.
The Perplexing Issue of Identity for the Christian Athlete
What is particularly difficult to understand for many in this conversation is the very common, yet perplexing issue of Christian athletes struggling with identity. Of course Christian athletes believe, in principle, that their identity and value come from God, not from their performance or their sport, but this is not always their experience. It is difficult enough to be a young person in today’s culture with so much pressure surrounding them in everyday life, but adding on top of that the transition out of the sport which “defined” you for many years, and then the expectation Christians feel to be perceived a certain way by others, this is a tall order for a Christian athlete!
When the “pray more,” or “read your Bible more” methods stop working, the questions that remain unanswered can create at the very least unfulfillment, anger, despair, and any number of the issues listed above.
Perhaps the most difficult part of it all is that it is completely normal to experience some of these things. This is the experience of countless former athletes because this is the culture we have created. In some circles, athletics is everything. Life after athletics is a problem for “future-you” and all of your worries are put on hold until professional sports are no longer an option – at which point all the questions and doubts about life begin to flow in.
Who am I? What am I going to do now? What about my future? Did I waste my time? This can feel like a scary place to be! But there is hope.
The Powerful Resilience of Christian Athletes
Christian athletes are some of the most kind, tough, and dependable humans on the planet. They know hard work. They know teamwork. They are well-acquainted with the pain and sacrifice required to be successful. These traits are not wasted just because life is changing!
Life may not require you to hit a three point shot, perform a triple jump, sink a 30 foot putt, or drive in a run, but the character you have built in order to put yourself in a position to be successful in sports can translate into post-athletic life victories. It just takes a little hope, and a lot of patience.
The Christian life is about direction, not perfection! We are called to live a life of endurance. It can seem almost impossible at times, but change is possible. Be patient with yourself.
Moving Toward Mental Health
There are many things athletes can do to improve their mental health such as practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, taking time to relax, unwind, focus on self-care, manage stress and anxiety, seek support from your local church, join a therapy group, or individual therapy. The list goes on and on.
But the thing I especially focus on in therapy with my client-athletes and post-athletes is identity. We work on creating really good conversations together that lead to hope, healing, and wholeness.
The character you have built from a life of athletic training is a deep, deep well to draw from and experience success in therapy and in your life. Christian athletes have so many resources they have developed from their years in sports, the difficult part may come in understanding how those skills translate into life after sports.
The primary and most important question I ask my clients each session is “what are your best hopes from us talking today?” Each session is dedicated to developing a vision with my client about what they want to see. And it is very normal that my clients don’t yet know what they want, and the good news is that they don’t have to know everything right away.
This question, and our work together, will lead toward getting clear on your values in life which contribute to an understanding of your identity – who you are and who you want to be.
One of the coolest things about this style of therapy is that clients can see results after just one session. It’s called Solution Focused Brief Therapy and it doesn’t take two years of digging into the past and your unconscious mind like some other classical forms of psychotherapy. Athletes want results, and they want help relevant to their specific situation. This is the goal for any good therapist.
You don’t need to be an athlete transitioning out of sports in order to implement some of the skills discussed in this post. Even as a current athlete, getting clear on your values, your identity, and the person you want to be can greatly improve your ability to perform at your highest level.
I recently heard a psychologist say, “people spend more time thinking about what they want to have for dinner on a daily basis, than they do thinking about the type of future they want to have.”
It will take some patience, but as an athlete, you have the skills to sit down and think through what you want and how you can achieve your goals. It’s good to have a big vision, but remember it may be helpful to break up your big goals into smaller bite-sized goals you can achieve and experience success along the way to keep you going. Change is possible. Hope is real. Wholeness is a process. You got this!
Herring, S.A., Kibler, B. W., Putukian, M. (2017). Psychological issues related to illness and injury in athletes and the team physician: A consensus statement. Current Sports Medicine Reports 16(3):p 189-201. | DOI: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000359
Johnny Yorga MA, LPCA
Johnny is a graduate of Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He is the owner of Bridge Behavioral Health and a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate providing Telehealth psychotherapy services to residents in the state of Oregon. He works with his clients to experience healing, wholeness, and hope. You can read more at www.bridgebehavioralhealth.com