Physical and mental health are closely linked, and the relationship between them goes both ways. Whether an athlete is dealing with acute or chronic injury or illness, it’s important for coaches and caregivers to pay close attention to an athlete’s mental state as they cope with physical issues.
“If an athlete is optimal physically, that is going to enable them to optimize their mental health as well,” says Michele LaBotz, TrueSport Expert and sports medicine physician. “If they’re sick, injured, or otherwise not well physically, then mental health often suffers too.”
Here, LaBotz shares five ways physical health issues can give rise to struggles with mental health for athletes.
“When you’re injured, the risk for depression or anxiety is higher,” says LaBotz. “Being physically well isn’t just the absence of illness, it’s being able to pursue those things that enhance your overall well-being. Activities that enhance physical health, like exercise and good nutrition, generally benefit mental health as well.” Athletes with injuries that prevent them from participating in sport and/or conditioning activities place them at risk for mental or emotional difficulty. LaBotz states, “Most athletes will have some degree of sadness after injury, but for some athletes an injury can precipitate more severe mental or emotional effects, including depression, anxiety and a loss of self-confidence.” LaBotz has even seen athletes experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after injuries like ACL tears or severe concussions that can make it hard for them to return to sport.
Mitigate it: Keep an open line of communication with athletes and their families, and “check in” with how athletes are coping with their injury. Encourage athletes to stick with their rehabilitation plan. Many athletes benefit from staying engaged with team activity and should be encouraged to check with their health care provider for any exercise or conditioning they can do during the recovery period. If you suspect an athlete is dealing with a more serious issue like PTSD or depression, encourage them to seek professional help.
“We know that depression and anxiety are eased by spending time in nature and with exercise,” LaBotz says. “Illness often takes away those capabilities temporarily.” Whether your athlete is dealing with a long-term illness like mononucleosis or long COVID, or a short-term illness like a severe stomach bug or flu, it can have an impact on their mental well-being. Short-term illnesses are less likely to be an issue, but if an athlete is out for weeks or months with something more chronic, they’re at higher risk for depression or anxiety.
Mitigate it: Even if an athlete is ill and can’t take part in practice, they can still likely enjoy nature to some extent—and even images of nature have been found to be beneficial for mental well-being. Urge athletes, especially those with more long-term illness, to find ways to get outside and develop a conditioning plan that is doctor-approved and feels good for them.