Professional athletes endure extreme pressures from the moment they begin their careers, although some receive loftier expectations than others.

The situation is clear: You are a professional athlete, and it’s the biggest moment in the biggest game of the season. Thousands of people are watching in person and millions are watching around the world. You, your teammates, your opponents and anyone else playing a major role in this moment are temporarily at the epicenter of pop culture.

What happens next? The worst.

You mess up. Whiffing at a pitch in the last inning of the World Series. Dropping a pass in the end zone during the Super Bowl. Missing a shot during the NBA Finals. Whichever it is, the overwhelmingly sinking feeling of letting down your teammates and fanbase is inescapable. You are the focal point of every negative emotion felt in that moment — and possibly the highlight on every TV and online recap in the following days.

For most people, there is no escaping the wave of criticism and mockery that will follow them for at least a few days or weeks, if not for the rest of their professional careers. How do you handle the aftermath of such an event?

Sports can have a tremendous influence on the world’s culture. At times positive, sports can bring different cultures and people of different backgrounds and beliefs together for a singular cause. Sports can be a way for damaged and hurting communities to forget their struggles and heartbreak, as was the case for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or Houston following Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Sports can also bring out the worst in society. Fans chant slurs at other players, get into fights with other fans, start riots when their team loses (or wins), and place much or all of their identity on the singular outcome of their favorite team’s game or season. At the epicenter of sports is a result with two sides: winner and loser. Being the fan who cheers for the latter can be a slippery slope if emotions are not kept in check. Players on the losing side? They can get equally as frustrated, if not more. What’s a concern that few people talk about is how exposed these athletes are, and how little some of their fans, the media and the general public care about their mental well-being following heartbreaking losses.

A History of Sports Blunders

Major sports blunders are all too common — and memorable. Boston Red Sox baseball player Bill Buckner let the ball roll through his legs to turn the tide in the 1986 World Series. University of Michigan basketball star and eventual NBA all-star Chris Webber called timeout in the 1993 national championship despite the fact his team did not have any more, resulting in a foul and clinching a win for the opposing team. Search on the internet for information on any of these moments, and you’ll find entire Wikipedia pages dedicated to them. Even more recent occurrences rank as some of the biggest blunders in sports history. Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player J.R. Smith forgot the score in the final seconds of the first game of the 2018 NBA Finals, and it cost his team a chance to win the game before going to overtime.

These experiences happened to real people. They felt the weight of cities on their shoulders and themselves crushed beneath those expectations. Then they had to endure days, weeks, months, even years of fans, media members and others criticizing their lowest of low moments in their professional sports careers. The victims of these circumstances have never been able to hide, in part due to the nature of sports in America and how entrenched these competitions are within the country’s makeup.

Now, well into the 21st century, everyone has a social media platform. Every disgruntled and disappointed fan can spread their opinions out, potentially reaching a professional athlete who is the target of their disdain. People ask, “Is this the greatest blunder in sports history?” Or they say, “That mistake is the sole reason we lost.”

At the end of the day, the ones who feel it the most are the ones who played on the court or field when the infamous event happened.

How Athletes Can Develop a Mental Illness From Sports

Professional athletes endure extreme pressures from the moment they begin their careers, although some receive loftier expectations than others. As an example, LeBron James was compared to Michael Jordan before he even knew for which team he’d play.

This attention can often lead to stress-related mental illnesses, including depression or anxiety. Numerous athletes have publicly discussed their own anxieties and bouts with depression, but the all-eyes-on-you culture only feeds into the enormous stress levels felt by many players.

“Stress-related illnesses are extremely common in professional sports, and they are becoming more so as the pressures on athletes increase,” Dr Barry Cripps, chairman of the sports and exercise division of the British Psychological Society, told the United Kingdom-based publication The Independent. “The expectations are enormous and sometimes people cannot handle it.”

The U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health cites a study titled “The Experience of Depression During the Careers of Elite Male Athletes” which states that “unacceptable results or loss of skills shown in competition” can cause depression because there can be a psychological and emotional effect of failing to live up to the standards set by the best performers in the sport.

“I feel like people who are on the outside looking in don’t really understand because they see us as superheroes,” said Kelly Oubre Jr., a Washington Wizards basketball player, on a podcast with NBC Sports Washington, “but we’re normal people, and we go through the issues that normal people go through, times 10.”

Oubre added that athletes deal with more adversity than regular Americans due to the large expectations that come with professional sports. However, not many regular Americans associate mental health struggles to professional athletes, in part because most self-associate burdens and rarely consider the obstacles faced by people who live different lifestyles.

The Recovery Village conducted a survey about the perception of mental illness and found that people are more likely to think that people like them are more susceptible to mental illnesses than people who are different. These results show that people often draw from their own experiences when identifying links between a person’s lifestyle and their mental well-being. Since a small percentage of the population are professional athletes, the majority of society ignores this segment when discussing mental health.

Still, stress and stress-related disorders are a major aspect of the profession. Athletes aren’t alone in functioning while having a larger amount of stress than most people. Other high-stress jobs, according to U.S. News & World Report, include:

  • Surgeon
  • Lawyer
  • Bartender
  • Paramedic
  • Anesthesiologist
  • Physician
  • IT manager
  • Financial manager
  • Mental health counselor

Stress Experts: How to Manage Profession-Driven Stress

So how do people in high-stress professions manage this burden? Many people turn to substance misuse as a way of coping with these emotions and in turn develop an addiction. Numerous athletes have lost their lives due to overdosing on dangerous drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Former NBA star Lamar Odom nearly died due to his drug addiction, while college basketball star and No. 2-overall NBA Draft pick Len Bias did lose his life to an overdose from cocaine in 1986. NFL running back Ricky Williams has acknowledged numerous times that he regularly smoked marijuana during his decade-plus career as a way to cope with his social anxiety disorderborderline personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder.

There are other techniques for athletes and others to experiment with as a way to manage stress without harmful substances. These include:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Physical exercise
  • Communicating with friends, colleagues or family members
  • Improving sleeping and eating habits
  • Keeping a stress diary

The Recovery Village can help people who struggle with mental health disorders as a co-occurring illness along with addiction. If you or someone you know has a high-stress job and is relying on drugs or alcohol, anxiety or depression might be at the center of the substance misuse. Call now to begin treatment, no matter your profession or whatever stigma you might face regarding mental illness and addiction.

a man in a purple shirt smiling at the camera.
Editor – Devin Golden
Devin Golden has worked for various print and digital news organizations. Devin's family has been affected by addiction and mental health disorders, which is a large part of why he wants to help others who have either directly or indirectly been affected by these diseases. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.