Donovan’s Experiences Shed Light on Athlete Mental Health

On Sunday, Landon Donovan played his final competitive match as a professional soccer player, and in helping the LA Galaxy clinch its record fifth MLS Cup, he ended his career on a winning note. While he has enjoyed unprecedented success as an MLS player, one part of Donovan’s career is discussed less often: his battle with mental health as a professional athlete. In recent years, Donovan has openly expressed mental exhaustion with the game, has reportedly struggled with depression, and meets with a therapist on a regular basis. In early-2013, when he took a four-month break from soccer to address some of these issues, MLS’s all-time leader in goals and assists said that, “We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it’.” In the postgame press conference on Sunday, a reporter asked him whether he could see himself as an advocate for athlete mental health in the future. “Obviously I’ve been very open about some of my struggles,” Donovan said in response. “I think it’s probably the last untapped part of sports. It’s pretty fascinating because your mental state and your emotional state can dramatically impact your performance. And so it’s actually mindboggling to see sports spend hundreds of millions of dollars on things, but not focus on that. Perhaps that will change in the future…perhaps I will be a part of it. But for me, the more meaningful way is to help individuals.”

Mental health is often seen as a taboo or uncomfortable topic and the world of sports is no exception. Athletes are often thought of as strong and invulnerable, and if they reveal that they are struggling mentally or emotionally, can be perceived as weak. However, like any other human being, athletes at any level encounter a range of emotions and challenging mental experiences that are often amplified by the pressure that comes with high-level performance and competition. While these experiences are normal, mental and emotional struggles can affect some individuals more than others. As an athlete, it is first and foremost important to recognize that you will encounter various emotions on and off the field, and while these emotions are not necessarily controllable, they are manageable. You can use tools such as a refocusing cue (i.e., “Let it go”) or centered breathing to manage the everyday emotions (i.e., anger, frustration, etc.) you experience during competition. However, at times, these emotions may seem too powerful to cope with on your own. In these circumstances, it is essential that you find someone you can talk to about these experiences, such as a parent, a teammate, a coach, or a sport psychology professional. It may be the case that you know or feel that something is wrong, but may not know what that is, or even how to go about handling it. It is acceptable and encouraged for you to seek out assistance with these issues. Donovan’s experiences as a professional demonstrate that regardless of competitive level, athletes are, first and foremost, human beings. Especially within the context of competitive youth sports, an individual’s wellbeing should always be the top priority. As this message continues to grow, athletes everywhere have better chances to combat the negative stigma associated with mental health.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement