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Naomi Osaka’s honesty sparks conversations around athletes and mental health

Marshfield Clinic Sports Performance center in Altoona
Marshfield Clinic Sports Performance center in Altoona(weau)
Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 6:04 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - While sports are encouraged from a young age for the many benefits it provides, athletes face unique factors that can ignite depression and anxiety.

UW-Eau Claire Softball coach Leslie Huntington says she’s seen these trends many times in her twenty years of coaching.

“A consistent theme of performance anxiety ... That feeling of not living up to expectations,” Huntington said.

Like many college programs that don’t have access to a sports psychologist, Coach Huntington says in many respects, she has had to take on that added role for her team.

“Athletes are looked at like the people who have it all. On the surface it looks like that but on the inside, they could be a total train wreck … there are so many things that go into that and it is so easy to be critical and I think that’s where a lot of the stress and anxiety comes from is the criticism that comes from people who have no idea,” Huntington said.

As Marshfield Clinic Sports Psychiatrist Allison Jones MD explains, athletes experience mental health issues at the same rate as the general population. However, they may be less likely to seek help.

“Why an athlete may struggle more is because of the pressures put on them. It’s a lot of stress so again like a physical injury if they’re asked to push through, that the physical injury might not get better,” Jones said.

That mindset prevents athletes of all ages from talking about their struggles.

“I think with professional athletes talking about it more and being more open about it, it really opens the door,” said Jones.

Huntington says she’s found that it’s been very beneficial for athletes to know they aren’t alone in facing these hurdles.

“Vulnerability is actually a sign of strength opposed to weakness,” the coach says.

It is recommended if you notice an athlete who has withdrawn from their sport or struggle with changes in their performance to reach out to them and see if there is additional help that can be provided. Dr. Jones says there are many different approaches to addressing an athlete’s mental health needs.

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