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Mental health in professional athletics becoming a major concern: Stress levels rise when athletes live center stage

This is the first of a six-part series that deals with the mental health concerns developed by athletes at the professional sporting level. In this week’s piece I will look at how being an athlete increases the chances of developing a mental illness. Next week’s column will focus on the superstitious attitudes owned by major league baseball players.

Professional athletes are more susceptible to mental illness than the average person for many different reasons.

Consider the anxiety suffered by a normal adult on an average day. Even as college students, the responsibilities in life, on certain days, are almost too overwhelming to manage.

Imagine these feelings amplified to a level in which the rest of the world was judging every act or decision you made. This is the life of a professional athlete.

Pressure from their coaches, pressure from their teammates, pressure from themselves; there is so much riding on the wide shoulders of these athletes, so if they falter in one game for just one moment, doubt ensues and begins to takeover.

Unlike other careers, there is no guarantee that a professional athlete will succeed in what he is being paid to accomplish.

Of course, in any business an executive can fail to make a sale, doctors can misdiagnose a patient or lawyers can lose a case, but no other occupation compares with the individual pressure sports requires.

Other occupations allow for some flexibility when mistakes are made, but ask Ryan Leaf how much leeway he received, even as a top-overall draft pick and the most desired player the NFL draft had seen since John Elway.

Leaf came into the league in 1998 and struggled mightily as a rookie. His football career and the career he had planned to use as his mean’s of living was over by 2001. In 2010, Leaf pled guilty to eight separate accounts of felony.

Even better, ask the hundreds of no-name “walk ons” who live week-to-week not knowing if they will keep their job.

Their base existence is to provide and that comes into serious question if they are cut from the team and payroll. This adds even more pressure to an athlete’s already stressful life.

Whether it is a baseball player striking out, a quarterback throwing an interception or a goalie allowing an easy score, athletes are set up to fail every day.

Failure is magnified in a game because there are thousands of people watching, but even in practice athletes must go through fighting for positions and impressing management just to keep a job.

"These guys, they're made of steel on the outside. But for a lot of them, the challenge of being at your best and living up to all the expectations is a difficult situation,” said Andrew Borarowicz, former agent of Kenny Mckinley, in an article written by Jon Wertheim on sportsillustrated.com.

Mckinley was a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos who committed suicide in 2010.

The pitcher also would always squat if the catcher was standing and always stand while the catcher was squatting.

These superstitious acts sound silly and harmless, but in all reality they are the basis for the psychological issues that contributed to major league baseball’s suicide rate being 2.6 times that of the average male population in the U.S from 2000-2010.

The same personality trait that increases one’s chance for engaging in superstitious behavior also increases one’s chances for committing suicide. It is a psychological state where a person feels no sense of control in his own life.

According to winmentalhealth.com, the rate of suicide for males in the U.S. during this decade (2000-2010) was 17.7 per 100,000 people, while major league baseball’s rate peaked at 46.3 per 100,000.

The Baseball Almanac compiled a list of 85 former players who took their own lives. Most recently added to the list was former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan, who shot himself this past August.

Flanagan was a former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion with the Orioles, but—suffering from financial difficulties—he lost control and took his own life.

When scrolling through the list of devastation, one can see that it is not coincidental that so many players from the same sport have committed suicide. In the past three years alone, five former ball players have taken their own lives.

In a story published in Sports Illustrated, Pablo S. Torre addresses the issues with mental health in baseball and discusses some key components in the causation of so many depression-ridden players.

Aside from their reliance on “the force” which leaves them feeling that they have little control and explains the player’s superstitions, baseball athletes must also deal with a very high rate of failure in their sport.

For instance, Torre explained how failing seven-out-of-ten times while batting is actually a player succeeding at his job. Getting a hit 30 percent of the time is a desirable number in major league baseball.

The degree of difficulty in this game is exemplified by the fact that these players are attempting to hit a ball that is three inches in diameter and coming at them at insanely high speeds.

The task becomes all the more difficult when you add the immense pressure of baseball being their means of living and the fact that they are being watched by tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Another component Torre mentions is the amount of time major league baseball players have to themselves during the course of a game.

Starting pitchers only pitch one out of five nights and position players play the field, getting little action depending on the position, while only batting four or five times a game.

Torre believes the rest of the time can be torturous because it is spent mulling over mistakes made earlier in the game.

Also, teams play 162 games in a season and constantly travel all around the country. Again, this is time spent in solitude or at least away from one’s family. This alone time can be the cause for many emotional problems.

As funny as superstitions can be in major league baseball, it is important to remember that these acts derive from serious psychological issues that could lead to depression in players and, even worse, suicide.

When a lack of control is added to the difficulty of the sport and the pressure these players have to succeed in order to make a living, baseball becomes a frontrunner for unhealthy psychological activity.

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