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Clinical Edition: Depression in sporting populations

Our role as a sport psychologist is about helping individuals change aspects of their lives they want to see change in.  We specialise in helping athletes of various ages and abilities in different sports to develop and integrate a range of mental skills to perform at their best on a consistent basis.  However, there is another aspect of our role as a sport psychologist and one that fits in with performance; health and well-being.  That is, working with athletes on their health and well-being issues that can have an impact on their performance.  When I speak of health and well-being I include mental health issues like depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and addictive disorders (drug & alcohol misuse, gambling etc), which unfortunately athletes are not immune to and are just as likely as others in the community to experience.  Mental health issues have a negative impact on how we think, feel, and act and therefore can impact on our performance in social and occupational settings.

The perception of athletes is that they are physically fit and mentally tough.  However, this view may make it harder to comprehend that athletes can still experience a mental health issue.  We are seeing more and more in the media of high-profile athletes battling these types of issues and how they have impacted upon their performance as well as their personal life.  There is no single cause of mental health issues like depression and anxiety but usually a combination of environmental conditions, genetic predisposition (family history), coping strategies, personality traits, and stress levels.  Regardless of level, athletes experience pressure and stress from external factors (e.g., coaches, media, family, sponsors, teammates, time demands)and from themselves (i.e., high expectations) in the pursuit of excellence.  Athletes are tested daily with an array of challenges and deal with these ongoing pressures which can contribute to their susceptibility of mental health issues such as depression.

Recent research has demonstrated that depression is a common mental health issue affecting both female and male athletes (Yang, Peek-Asa, Corlette, Chang, Foster & Albright 2007).  There are many sport-specific factors (i.e., environmental) that can put athletes at an increased risk of developing a mental illness such as depression.  These factors include injury, burnout, and overtraining, high trait anxiety, career retirement, and concussions. Injury is often accompanied by depression and this is especially the case for seriously injured athletes (Appaneal, Levine, Perna & Roh, 2009; Smith, 1996; Smith, Scott, O’Fallon et al., 1990).  The magnitude and severity of the injury, the rehabilitation program, and the level of competition are all factors that can contribute to an athlete experiencing depressive symptomatology.  Depression has also been shown to be one of the most prevalent psychological problems among athletes experiencing burnout and overtraining (Budgett, 1990).

Mental Notes Consulting (MNC) sport psychologists have helped and continue to help many athletes treat and manage psychological issues like depression.  The first step is always getting an understanding of how the athlete is experiencing depression and the impact it is having on their sporting performance (training & in competition).  Education is part of the process as each individual experiencing depression differently. Some of the symptoms often identified are:

–    Loss of interest and pleasure
–    Feelings of guilt
–    Feelings of low self-worth and low self-esteem
–    Low energy
–    Poor concentration
–    Irritability
–    Changed sleeping and/or eating behaviours
–    Feeling down for prolonged periods of time

It is important to note that all of us at one point in time will feel down.  However, these symptoms are often experienced for prolonged periods of time and are hard to ‘snap out’ of by yourself. Although further research is needed to identify the prevalence rate of depression in the sporting population, specifically in athletes, it can be seen through individual case studies and our client work that the athletes do experience depression.

Case Study: An athlete came to see me as he was concerned about his lack of motivation to train and feeling tired, especially considering he had an international competition coming up in a couple of months. He also reported disrupted sleeping patterns, feeling flat as well as unhelpful thoughts.  To help deal with these issues he developed maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., increased in alcohol consumption) and he was socially withdrawing from others.  Consequently, this athlete’s preparation leading in to the competition was disrupted as he frequently missed training sessions due to his depressed mood.

What is most important is that depression is treatable.  At MNC we use a positive psychology approach which means we not only help athletes reduce their symptoms but also work together to identify and set goals related to the athletes strengths.  Early detection and intervention with a sport psychologist can help athletes recover and continue to work towards their sporting goals.  Additionally, we use a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy framework which has extensive research showing its effectiveness in treating depression. Being proactive about improving their health and well-being will also help their sporting performance.  It can be quite hard seeking help perhaps due to the fear of it being revealed or being seen by others and themselves as a sign of weakness.  However, a resilient athlete is one who is able to effectively deal with setbacks and overcome obstacles so as to have a positive impact on their performance and life.  Therefore, seeking treatment should be viewed as an act of resilience and a sign of an athlete placing importance on their health and well-being.   For more information or if you have any questions please do not hesitate in making an enquiry on our website,  Additionally, a great website to visit that looks specifically at depression is


Appaneal, R.N., Levine, B.R., Perna, F.M., & Roh, J.L. (2009). Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 60-76.
Budgett, R. (1990). Overtraining syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 24, 231-236.
Yang, J., Peek-Asa, C., Corlette, J., Cheng, G., Foster, D., & Albright, J. (2007). Prevalence of and risk factors associated with symptoms of depression in competitive student athletes. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 17(6), 481-487.
Smith, A.M. (1996). Psychological impact of injuries in athletes. Sports Medicine, 22(6), 391-405.
Smith, A.M., Scott, S.G., O’Fallon, W.M., & Young, M.L. (1990). Emotional responses of athletes to injury. Sports Medicine, 65 (1), 38-50.