The NHS lists swimming as a mood-booster, stress-reliever, and a way to improve your mental wellbeing. It's a fantastic form of exercise and a great hobby. But what happens when you take swimming too seriously? Letting it become the centre of your life can cause a reduction in your mental wellbeing, especially if you don't take time for yourself away from it.

It’s not just swimming that can cause problems. The pressure that comes with competitive sports can sometimes take its toll on your mental health. No sport is worth sacrificing your personal well-being for, so why does this happen?

Feeling the pressure

Make no mistake - it isn't the activity, like swimming that's causing problems. The psychological strain can arise from head injuries in many sports, but also often from the immense pressures of competing, living up to expectations, and eventually parting with a sport you love.

High-level athletes may be more prone to mental health problems from sports. For example, the daily intensive training required to be at the top of your game can leave many feeling lonely and isolated, unable to live a ‘normal’ life like their peers. There’s also the pressure to perform; not just to meet their own high expectations, but also to perform for fans and those who have supported them over the years.

Often, when a high-level athlete makes mistakes, the world isn’t kind. The internet becomes a breeding ground for targeted and hateful comments and there is scrutiny in the media. This can be hard to deal with for athletes who are constantly striving for perfection in their field. In a study of 50 swimmers competing for positions in Canada’s Olympic and world championship teams, 68% of participants ‘met the criteria for a major depressive episode’. 34% of athletes met diagnostic criteria and 26% self-reported mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression. The prevalence of depression doubled among the elite top 25% of athletes and there was a significant correlation between depression and performance failure.

But those who haven’t lived such a long career may also struggle to find their footing in a new career path. After years of dedication to one sport, after injury, many athletes struggle to find a career where they have the right skills to start fresh.

It’s this unique set of challenges presented to sports people that can result in a vulnerability to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, or even feelings of grief.

Let’s talk about it

One of the biggest barriers to helping athletes protect their mental health during their competitive careers is the reluctance to talk about mental health problems. People often wrongly perceive these issues as weakness and vulnerability, and internal thoughts tell us we don’t deserve our place as an athlete. Listening to this cruel inner critic can lead to further negative feelings, and if left to spiral out of control, they can cause tragedy.

We need to build a culture in swimming and competitive sport that encourages people to talk about the mental challenges they’re facing. We need to show there are support systems that can help vulnerable athletes get in the right headspace and receive the treatment they might need. We need to show them that seeking help for mental health issues is strong, brave, and the best decision.

In professional sport, we take caution with even the smallest physical injuries, dedicating thousands towards treatments. Why should mental health be any different? Of course, exercise like swimming can do wonders for your mental health, but we’ll save that topic for next time.

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