The 400-year sickness of racism continues to kill Black Americans, while a newer plague, COVID-19, has brought over 100,000 US deaths. That terrible loss of life does not fully encompass the current crisis, where traumatic grief, outrage, anger, and fear are themselves epidemic. The searing stress of unchecked racism burns like a national fever. Economic disruption, social distancing and sheltering at home add to the burden of coping. Mental health and domestic violence hotlines report large increases in calls for help. Alcohol and gun sales are up over 50%. While many people with mental health challenges suffer alone and in silence, others act out their emotional struggles, visiting their suffering on partners, family members, and in communities.
Living through this crisis has shown us how much our mental health and resilience depend on access to key psychological, social, and economic resources. In the case of athletes, critical coping resources like training facilities, workout opportunities, and team contacts are largely inaccessible. Opportunities to compete are mostly absent. Some colleges are cutting sport programs, and schedules at every level remain uncertain. Constrained from fully expressing their athletic identities and deprived of usual supports, athletes are facing significant mental health vulnerabilities.
Research suggests that, broadly speaking, elite athletes are no less vulnerable to mental health problems than the general population. A 2019 IOC review documented significant rates of depression, anxiety, sleep problems, disordered eating, and substance abuse among top athletes. A new NCAA study found a 150-250% increase in college athlete reports of mental health problems over comparable pre-COVID surveys, with athletes of color showing the highest level of concern. The current crisis is hitting athletes hard precisely because of the pressure for them to appear emotionally invulnerable.
The myth of athlete invulnerability has long hidden the human side of our sports heroes. Male and female athletes have long been taught to push against and push away their emotional needs, keeping their personal struggles secret. Mental toughness has meant a single-minded drive through adversity and an imperative to never show weakness. The toxic mix of inflexible, self-reliant coping strategies and denial of emotional vulnerability, forecloses help-seeking and can lead to tragic outcomes such as suicide, self-harm, domestic violence, sexual assault, and addiction.
Athletes facing today’s doubly shadowed valley of racism and pandemic need new sources of resilience, as their familiar strategies of toughening up and tightening down are not sufficient. To thrive in this unique period of adversity, athletes must break with outmoded assumptions about athletic strength and weakness, and acknowledge, accept, and embrace emotional vulnerability as an essential step toward mobilizing resilience. Today’s athletes have a unique opportunity to demonstrate what true courage looks like. They can embody emotionally healthy resilience, modeling the best of what we reach for, as competitors and as human beings.
Our hearts lift when we see the US Women’s Soccer team win the World Cup, marvel at the artistry of Michael Jordan, or watch Michael Phelps win 28 Olympic medals. But in the shadow of the triumphant champion athlete lies an impoverished image of healthy emotional life. Seeing athletic heroes as carefree entertainment icons, rather than as people who feel and fail, suffer and struggle, ill serves the human beings who give themselves over to the rigors of training and the demands of competitive excellence. The myth of athlete invulnerability leaves us with unhealthy role models and perpetuates the misconception that embracing vulnerability is a sign of weakness.
Fortunately, new images of athletic strength are emerging as courageous champions Hope Solo, Brandon Marshall, Kevin Love, Chamique Holdsclaw, Daniel Carcillo, Serena Williams, and others break the silence on emotional pain, acknowledge their vulnerabilities, and move beyond unhealthy, hyper-masculine models of mental toughness. They show us what it looks like to experience depression, anxiety, anger, fear, or shame, and then rise, moving forward with determination and dignity, undeterred by the old idea that vulnerability means weakness. These courageous leaders have shown us the way to humanizing heroes and normalizing vulnerability.
Busting free the myth of invulnerability liberates athletes from soul-crushing expectations. Courageously vulnerable athletes model a more balanced, humane, accepting, and affirming athletic identity. An emotionally healthy athletic culture acknowledges mental suffering as a part of human experience, endorses reaching out for support, rewards enlisting help when needed, and celebrates excellence achieved without the price of emotional and physical harm to self or to others.
Courageously vulnerable athletes elevate a new image of resilience, reducing stigma around emotional challenges and honoring strength in reaching out to supports. By embracing vulnerability and still rising, resilient athlete role models lead us along the path toward ending forever the silent suffering and harmful acting out that too many athletes, too many family members, too many fans, and too many communities have endured.
Jim Helling, LICSW, CMPC
Alliance of Social Workers in Sports
Suzanne Potts, LMSW, MPH
Athletes for Hope