Mental health: The game not all athletes are prepared for

Varsity+basketball+player+Kalysa+Marie+Ng+prepares+to+take+a+shot+during+a+game+against+Leilehua+High+School.+Photo+by+Samantha+Europa

Varsity basketball player Kalysa Marie Ng prepares to take a shot during a game against Leilehua High School. Photo by Samantha Europa

From the roaring crowd of fans after a game-winning shot to the relief felt when the championship banner goes up, many student athletes dream of these shining moments. But in order to get there, athletes today push themselves beyond their limits, sacrificing their physical and mental health along the way. 

“My dad encouraged me to play basketball,” Sacred Hearts Academy sophomore Kalysa Marie Ng said. “I train mostly everyday, two times a day, for basketball and play lots of games throughout the week.”

Young athletes, like Ng, say the pressure to perform at higher levels becomes overwhelming. Athletes in the spotlight often experience the negative impact that sports has on their mental well-being–and from an earlier age than years prior.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, “35% of elite athletes suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression, and/or anxiety.” In the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a study showed 30% of collegiate athletes feeling extremely overwhelmed.

The public has seen mental health impacts on prestigious professional athletes like Simone Biles, who caught a case of the twisties, a phenom when gymnasts lose control of their body in the air. This happened before the 2020 Olympics. Meanwhile, collegiate athletics saw the negative effect of mental health when Stanford soccer player Katie Meyer took her own life in 2022. 

This epidemic of mental health issues and perfectionism is a feeling Ng knows well.

“When I first started playing basketball, it was difficult for me,” Ng said. Her brothers, Kameron and Kordel Ng, were standout and award-winning basketball players for Saint Francis School. “I kept telling myself that I needed to play well and that I needed to show everyone that I was just as skilled as my brothers because I felt like I was always known as Kameron and Kordel Ng’s little sister.”

Having mental toughness

Kalysa Marie Ng quickly learned to have mental toughness, or the ability to bounce back and move on after a bad game, for example. And for many athletes, the phrase “suck it up” has become a staple for players, as they learn to toughen their mindsets. 

“‘Suck it up’ means you are supposed to be tough, supposed to be strong; you’re not supposed to show any weakness. And we are told that, which (prevents) us from reaching out and asking for help,” said Kingsley Ah You, a former Brigham Young University football player and current Dean of Student Well-Being for Athletics at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama. 

“If you asked me what it means to be mentally tough,  IMUA is how I would describe it- to press forward with determination when facing challenges and opposition until you are successful.” he said.

While coaches, family members and other players may be aware of the negative side effects sports can have on one’s mental health, a struggling athlete is still difficult to identify. 

“It’s not just athletes; it’s anyone,” Ah You said. “Unless you have a longitudinal perspective, or a positive relationship and understanding of how that person behaves…it’s harder to tell if they are struggling.”

Factors contributing to poor mental health

The first issue contributing to poor mental health in athletes is the impact of an injury. While coaches show on the outside they care about injured players, athletes, like Saint Louis School senior Malakai Holland, say they are still burdened with the question of, “How much longer before you’re back in the game?” 

“When I tore my meniscus in wrestling, I was told my knee wouldn’t heal properly, and I would have to change the way I wrestled,” Holland said. “To this day, I still have to tape my knee and make sure I don’t overuse it. My mental state between this major injury was that I wouldn’t get used to it.”

According to a National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) article, “The relationship between coaches and athletes can be complex. Coaches may feel pressured to base their interactions around techniques and tactics of the sport in order to ‘win now.’” 

Student athletes, the article continues, “relish the positive feedback, rewards of immediate success and attention of a coach, may feel pressured to stay in the athletic-performance focused part of the coach-athlete relationship, hiding the ways in which they are struggling and in need of emotional and mental support.”

For some student athletes, according to the NCAA, the “psychological response to injury can trigger or unmask serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and substance use or abuse.” 

The second issue, burnout. Many athletes point to burnout as a stressor. As described by the National Library of Medicine, Athlete burnout is generally defined as a cognitive-affective syndrome comprising emotional and physical exhaustion, sport devaluation and a reduced sense of accomplishment.” 

Athletes find themselves focusing more on the finish line than the journey. Sports are no longer fun and their performance is all that matters. 

“I feel burnt out because I’m very hard on myself (and) on my performance on the court,” Kalysa Marie Ng said. “When I play badly, I often compare myself to other

Varsity basketball player Kalysa Marie Ng shoots a three point shot during a scrimmage against her lancer teammate, Nahenahe Alo. Photo by Samantha Europa

players, and it’s very tiring.” 

The pressure to perform is another issue contributing to the mental state of many athletes. For an athlete, performance is important. It can determine their future, which for many, includes getting recruited to play for a college team. 

“Parents unfortunately invest everything into their child, thinking they will be the next Tiger Woods,” Ah You said. “Sometimes, parents do their very best, but they put so much pressure on their child, that it’s just not healthy.”

 

Supporting athletes

Experts say there are many ways that athletes can be supported. 

At Kamehameha Kapālama, a 3D Coaching philosophy has been created to assist coaches in focusing on fundamentals, psychology, and the heart of their haumāna ‘ālapa (student-athletes).

“Our coaches have to be certified and learn to be fundamentally sound, skilled at coaching the mind and focused on capturing the heart. It’s about the whole child,” Ah You said. “We support our Coaches and hold them accountable because we are here to build our student athletes.”

At the Academy, the athletic department partners with mental strength and conditioning coaches, like Darryl Oshiro of Positive Focus. 

“My primary focus is on mental skills development (a.k.a. performance enhancement skills) for athletes. Educating athletes on the importance of sport psychology concepts, as well as a variety of techniques to be able to perform to their maximum ability on a consistent basis,” he said.

To help athletes, Oshiro focuses on what he calls, ʻThe Positive Focus Mindset.’ 

“The Positive Focus Mindset is simple. If you have a negative thought and (or) feeling, ask yourself one question. Is this how most people would react to this kind of experience? If the answer is yes, change your response so that the experience can empower you versus zapping your energy,” Oshiro said.

Support can also come from coaches, Ah You said. 

“I watch (players) for adverse behaviors and warning signs. Then, I talk to the student to see if I can help in any way, as well as have a positive conversation with them,” local coach and former athlete Dennis Agena said. “I listen to them. From there, I can explain what I feel they need to do. In the end, however, I feel that it is a doctor’s job to help those who go through burnout, depression and stress.” 

 

Athletes supporting themselves

Coaches and schools are doing what they can to help promote better mental health in athletes. What can athletes do? 

Athletes for Hope is an organization bringing athletes together to educate and inspire them to channel their energy for a common goal: to make a difference in the world. According to the organization, there are three ways players can improve their mental health. 

This includes talking to family, a teammate, coaches or someone who the athlete feels comfortable sharing their experience with; making an appointment with a medical professional to identify stress sources and create positive ways to cope; and creating a self-care plan to ensure a balanced schedule.

Kalysa Marie Ng agrees and shares what she wants younger athletes to know. 

“Comparison is the thief of joy. We often compare our lowlights to other people’s highlights,” she said. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else; instead, focus on getting 1% better every day and that little progress is still progress, so never stop working toward your goals.”