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The topic of depression during the career of elite male athletes has been the subject of much public interest and attention in recent years. Despite numerous debates and personal disclosures within the media, there is a dearth of published research directly exploring the phenomenon. This study sought to explore how elite male athletes experience depression during their sporting careers. Eight former/current elite male athletes who had previously publically self-identified as having experienced depression while participating in sport were recruited for this study. A qualitative methodology was employed and each participant was interviewed using semi-structured interviews. Data analysis which was conducted using descriptive and interpretive thematic analysis uncovered three domains: 1) The emergence of depression 2) The manifestation of symptoms of depression and 3) Adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies in the process of recovery. Findings from the current study reveal the nature of how male athletes experience, express and respond to depression during their careers. Additionally, this is influenced by a myriad of factors embedded in the masculine elite sport environment. Implications are discussed particularly in relation to atypical expressions of depression not necessarily reflected on or in standard diagnostic criteria. Future research is encouraged to examine in depth moderating factors (e.g. athletic sense of identity and masculine elite sport environments) for the relationship between depression and participation in elite sport.
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The Experience of Depression during the Careers of
Elite Male Athletes
Steve Doherty2, Barbara Hannigan2, Mark J. Campbell1*
1Department of Physical Education & Sport Sciences, University of Limerick, Ireland,
2School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Submitted to Journal:
Frontiers in Psychology
Specialty Section:
Movement Science and Sport Psychology
ISSN:
1664-1078
Article type:
Original Research Article
Received on:
04 Dec 2015
Accepted on:
30 Jun 2016
Provisional PDF published on:
30 Jun 2016
Frontiers website link:
www.frontiersin.org
Citation:
Doherty S, Hannigan B and Campbell MJ(2016) The Experience of Depression during the Careers of
Elite Male Athletes. Front. Psychol. 7:1069. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01069
Copyright statement:
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Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org
Provisional
I
The Experience of Depression during the Careers of Elite Male Athletes
Steve Dohertya, Barbara Hannigana & Mark J. Campbellb*
a Dr Steve Doherty (Trinity College Dublin)
a Prof Barbara Hannigan (Trinity College Dublin)
b Dr Mark Campbell (University of Limerick)
a School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2
E-mail: dohertst@tcd.ie Ph No. 0035387 9903942
a School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2
E-mail: hannigab@tcd.ie Ph No. 003531 8962429
b Department of Physical Education & Sport Sciences, University of Limerick, Castletroy,
Limerick, Ireland.
E-mail: mark.campbell@ul.ie. Ph No. 00353 61234944.
*Corresponding author: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr
Mark Campbell
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Abstract
1
The topic of depression during the career of elite male athletes has been the subject of much
2
public interest and attention in recent years. Despite numerous debates and personal
3
disclosures within the media, there is a dearth of published research directly exploring the
4
phenomenon. This study sought to explore how elite male athletes experience depression
5
during their sporting careers. Eight former/current elite male athletes who had previously
6
publically self-identified as having experienced depression while participating in sport were
7
recruited for this study. A qualitative methodology was employed and each participant was
8
interviewed using semi-structured interviews. Data analysis which was conducted using
9
descriptive and interpretive thematic analysis uncovered three domains: 1) The emergence of
10
depression 2) The manifestation of symptoms of depression and 3) Adaptive and
11
maladaptive coping strategies in the process of recovery. Findings from the current study
12
reveal the nature of how male athletes experience, express and respond to depression during
13
their careers. Additionally, this is influenced by a myriad of factors embedded in the
14
masculine elite sport environment. Implications are discussed particularly in relation to
15
atypical expressions of depression not necessarily reflected on or in standard diagnostic
16
criteria. Future research is encouraged to examine in depth moderating factors (e.g. athletic
17
sense of identity and masculine elite sport environments) for the relationship between
18
depression and participation in elite sport.
19
20
Key Words: Male, Depression, Elite sport culture, Identity, Masculinity
21
22
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Within the Diagnostic statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-V) (APA, 2013),
1
numerous disorders fall under the category of depression. While the specific criteria for these
2
disorders differ, individuals diagnosed with depression are generally observed to experience a
3
reduction in functioning (e.g. occupational) while presenting with a range of persistent
4
symptomology. Such symptoms include; experiences of low mood, sadness, decreased
5
energy and motivation, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulties in concentration,
6
changes in appetite, problems sleeping and recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation
7
over at least a two week period (APA, 2013).
8
Recently, there has been an upsurge of interest in qualitative explorations of male
9
depression (Martin, Neighbors & Griffith, 2013). While the components of depression vary
10
throughout these studies, they tend to describe overlapping, cyclical, suppressive, avoidant
11
and externalising symptomatology or attempts to mask depression. Participants in these
12
studies have consistently described experiences related to; increased interpersonal
13
withdrawal, substance abuse, increased frequency of interpersonal conflict, self-destruction,
14
an over investment in work, avoidance of help seeking and an escalation in anger outbursts
15
(Brownhill, Wilhelm, Barclay & Schmied, 2005; Chuick, Greenfeld, Greenberg, Shepard,
16
Cochran & Haley, 2009; Oliffe et al., 2010). Researchers have hypothesised that learned
17
typical gender norms such as dominance, emotional control, avoidance of femininity, risk
18
taking, pursuit of status and winning, primacy of work and extreme self-reliance encourage
19
the manifestation of these atypical symptoms or “depression equivalents” (Cochran et al.,
20
2000; Brownhill et al., 2005; Mahalik, Good & Englar-Carlson, 2003). While the processes
21
which underlie and are assumed to be involved in the experience of more masculine forms of
22
depression are not directly supported by empirical research (Addis, 2008), indirect evidence
23
broadly supports the theory that traditional masculine cultures shape how men experience,
24
express and respond to depression (Addis & Cohane, 2005, Cochran, 2005). It is on this basis
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that scholars often question the prevalence rates for depression in the male population. The
1
DSM-V (APA, 2013) criteria for the disorder which is regularly employed within
2
epidemiological research studies has been hypothesised to represent a more feminine
3
congruent coping process while not reflecting the manifestation of more masculine
4
expressions of depression (Kilmartin, 2005). This body of research has fuelled subsequent
5
studies that have attempted to establish more efficient methods of assessing manifestations of
6
depression in men (Martin et al., 2013).
7
Athlete mental health
8
The topic of mental health in sport has not received that much attention within academic
9
literature. Reardon and Factor (2010) claim that our tendency to idealise elite athletes has led
10
the general public and some within the healthcare profession to assume a low prevalence of
11
mental health issues in sport. Problems related to recognizing psychological difficulties
12
within an elite sport culture have also been hypothesised. For example, a review carried out
13
by Thompson and Sherman (1999) discussed how the specific manifestation of Anorexia
14
Nervosa such as overtraining or denying discomfort could be confused for what they termed
15
‘good athlete characteristics.’ Furthermore, as empirical research reports that athletes have a
16
negative perception of help-seeking (Steinfeldt & colleagues, 2012) and often accept pain
17
while minimising displays of weakness (Sinden, 2010), it could be inferred that they may be
18
less likely to willingly present to mental health professionals for support related to
19
psychological distress during their careers. Numerous high profile individuals retrospectively
20
reporting episodes of depression during their sporting careers has fuelled a recent surge of
21
public and media interest (Kirwan & Thomson, 2010; Trescothick, 2008). While
22
epidemiological research on the prevalence of depression and various forms of
23
psychopathology in the male or female elite sport context does exist, it is limited and mired
24
with inconsistent findings. For example, consider the large contrast in the following two
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studies; Resch and Haasz (2009) suggested that prevalence rates for depression were 37.5 %
1
amongst the athletes recruited to participate in their study, while Schaal and colleagues
2
(2011) observed that only 1 % of the athletes within their study suffered from Major
3
Depressive Disorder (MDD). It is worth noting that Resch et al. (2009) administered surveys
4
to athletes and focused their study primarily on eating disorders, while Schaal et al. (2011)
5
recruited both high level and junior level elite athletes and derived their results from
6
nationwide data that were obtained from the athletes yearly psychological evaluations. While
7
the topic continues to gain traction within media circles, based on the current available
8
evidence in an elite sport context, it remains challenging, at present, to quantify the precise
9
extent and nature of athlete’s problems with depression during their careers.
10
The costs associated with competing in elite sport and their link to mental health
11
A plethora of studies have presented the positive and protective factors associated with
12
engaging in sport and exercise (Buckworth & Dishman, 2002; Rethorst, Wipfli & Landers,
13
2009). Since Miller and Kerr’s (2002) review article, there has been a substantial increase in
14
research seeking to understand the person behind the athlete. (Carless & Douglas, 2013;
15
Carless & Douglas, 2012; Warriner & Lavallee, 2008).
16
Numerous researchers have commented on the concerning phenomenon that while
17
athletes strive to achieve excellence within the elite sport environment their identity often
18
becomes completely foreclosed or constructed around their ability to perform in their athletic
19
career (Carless et al. 2009; Warriner & Lavallee, 2008). In addition to the ‘performance
20
narrative’ which some scholars observe as the dominant message that athletes internalise
21
within their day to day lives (Douglas & Carless, 2006), studies have also discussed how
22
athletes are exposed to values that serve to reinforce qualities (competition, aggression and
23
toughness) which are often associated with traditional conceptualisations of masculinity
24
(Steinfeldt & Steinfeldt 2012). Various papers have added to our understanding of
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masculinity and the possible negative consequences associated with constructions of strength
1
and toughness in sport (Sinden, 2010; Wacquant, 2001; Young, White, & McTeer, 1994).
2
Elite rowers retrospectively reported actively suppressing emotions to avoid appearing
3
mentally weak, negative, or irrational while suffering from health problems during training
4
(Sinden, 2010). Further papers which have covered topics such as organizational stress
5
(Fletcher, Hanton, Mellalieu & Neil, 2012), extrinsic motivation (Lemyre, Roberts & Stray-
6
Gundersen, 2007), burnout (Cresswell & Eckland, 2007), attitudes to help seeking (Steinfeldt
7
et al., 2012), risk taking (Schnell, Mayer, Diehl, Zipfel, & Thiel, 2014) and adversity
8
(Howells & Fletcher, 2015) have prompted numerous researchers to speculate that athletes
9
are vulnerable to developing mental health issues (Reardon et al., 2010, Hughes & Leavey,
10
2012).
11
While a number of studies have indirectly mentioned depressive mood within their
12
discussions (e.g. Carless & Douglas, 2009; Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993), from the
13
outset these studies have not specifically focused on the construct of depression. Furthermore,
14
while there are an increasing number of review articles on the subject of mental health and
15
depression in elite sport (Reardon et al., 2010, Hughes et al., 2012) there currently is a dearth
16
of research directly exploring the phenomenon.
17
Rationale for current study
18
The last decade has seen a growing acceptance of qualitative methods within the sport
19
psychology domain (Biddle, Markland, Gilbourne, Chatzisarantis & Sparkes, 2001) and the
20
authors of this paper argue that there is also a need for employing this paradigm when
21
attempting to understand the phenomenon of depression within the male athletic population.
22
There is a general consensus within sport psychology literature that elite sport has unique
23
challenges, stresses and constraints (Schael et al. 2011). While reflecting on the established
24
necessity to understand depression in the context of the culture in which an individual resides
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(Cochran et al., 2000), it is imperative that researchers seek to explore the subjective
1
experiences of those living within the environment of elite male sport. This seems
2
particularly important considering the recent suggestion that practitioners have begun to
3
accept that the psychological care of athletes is being delivered without a full understanding
4
of the diagnostic and therapeutic issues unique to this population (Reardon et al., 2010). In
5
many ways it would seem prudent to embrace viewpoints from previous commentators who
6
encouraged researchers to move away from a foreclosed focus on measurement and simply
7
‘ask men’ and in this case ‘elite male athletes’ about their experiences (Cochran et al., 2000).
8
To summarise, the present paper utilises qualitative methods to elucidate the meaning
9
and nature of depression within the context of an elite male athletic career. With the
10
exception of Jones (2010) who asked female non-elite athletes about depression, this topic
11
has received little attention within academic literature. This paper represents the first
12
published study to explore elite male athlete’s experiences of depression during their sporting
13
careers.
14
Method
15
Design
16
A qualitative methodology was utilised and semi structured interviews were employed as the
17
method of data collection (Smith, 2007).
18
Development of semi-structured interview
19
An interview schedule which was developed by the research team and informed by their
20
clinical knowledge and the contemporaneous research literature in the area (e.g. Chuick et al.,
21
2009) was divided into three stages. Within the first stage, attention was directed towards
22
how the athletes understood the initial development and experience of depression during their
23
careers. The second stage focused on how elite male athletes expressed their depression
24
during their careers, while the third and final stage of the interview focused on how elite male
25
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athletes coped with their encounter(s) with depression during their careers. Evocative
1
wording, prompts and the empathic communication skills of the researcher were used in the
2
interview with a view to encouraging the participants to reflect deeply on their experiences.
3
Prior to beginning the research interviews, a pilot interview was conducted with a college
4
athlete who had previously experienced depression. Based on this pilot study, the draft
5
interview schedule was modified to incorporate the experience of the interview, and feedback
6
from the pilot interviewee.
7
Recruitment
8
Purposeful sampling which has been previously employed in qualitative explorations of
9
various athletes’ experiences (Kirby, Moran & Guerin, 2011) was employed during the
10
recruitment stage. Through broad internet searches, forty three males who had publically
11
disclosed having encountered depression during their sporting careers were identified as
12
potential participants. Contact was made with prospective participants through an ethically
13
approved invitation sent via email or through private messages on social media sites in the
14
public domain. Eight out of the fifteen who responded to the invitation, agreed to participate
15
in the study.
16
Participants
17
Eight Caucasian male current/former elite athletes from seven different sports who had
18
previously publically self-disclosed having had depression during their sporting careers
19
participated in this study. A recent paper by Swann, Moran & Piggott (2015) critiqued the use
20
of the term ‘elite athlete’ within sport psychology research and suggested that the term varied
21
on a continuum of validity. The authors further translated their findings into a taxonomy for
22
classifying expert samples within future studies and developed an equation to position
23
athlete’s levels of expertise into four categories; semi- elite; competitive elite, successful elite
24
and world class elite. This model was employed within this paper in an attempt to illustrate
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participant’s levels of experience and success within their respective sport (e.g. as per the
1
Swann et al {2015} classifications, semi-elite athletes are those whose highest level of
2
participation is below the top standard possible in their sport; Competitive-elite athletes
3
regularly compete at the highest level in their sport but have 3 not had any success at that
4
level; Successful-elite athletes not only compete at the highest level, but have experienced
5
some (infrequent) success at that standard (e.g., winning an event or a medal); World-class
6
elite athletes experience sustained success at the highest level, with 6 repeated wins over a
7
prolonged period of time (e.g., winning gold medals in consecutive Olympics, or major
8
competitive victories over a number of seasons)) . While anonymity could not be guaranteed
9
due to the public nature of the athletes stories, all efforts were made to anonymise data
10
throughout each stage of the research project. To illustrate how participants met criteria for
11
this project and to provide some context to the analysis process, some pertinent demographic
12
information is provided in table 1 below.
13
14
INSERT TABLE 1 HERE
15
16
Data Collection
17
As five of the participants recruited in the study were residents in North America and
18
Australia/Oceania these interviews took place on Skype. The remaining three interviews took
19
place in various private locations throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. Data
20
collection occurred between July 2013 and March 2014. Each interview was audio recorded
21
and lasted between 65-90 minutes with a mean length of 79 minutes and standard deviation
22
of 14.5.
23
Data Analysis
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Descriptive and Interpretative Analysis (Elliott & Timulak, 2005) was employed to analyse
1
the experiences of depression during elite sport careers. The steps followed during data
2
analysis are outlined below;
3
i. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and read and re-read by the principal researcher
4
and initial notes related to any key themes or reactions to the research were recorded.
5
ii. Notes were recorded on segments of text which were judged to contain a meaningful
6
idea. These meaning units were used to divide the transcript.
7
iii. Each meaning unit was further analysed to understand its core idea.
8
iv. Themes which represented a summary of meaningful ideas were identified for each
9
meaning unit. While there was an inevitable level of interpretation throughout the data
10
analysis, the team endeavoured to stay close to the participants own words when
11
locating themes.
12
v. Domains were initially identified based on initial impressions of the data, a review of
13
the literature and on the interview questions. These broad domains provided an
14
organising structure and a conceptual framework for the data. They facilitated the data
15
analysis process by starting with a top down rather than a bottom up approach.
16
vi. Each meaning unit and theme was then allocated to a main domain.
17
vii. Themes were grouped with other themes which contained similar ideas to form
18
categories.
19
viii. Themes within categories were then reviewed and grouped with similar themes to
20
form subcategories. The intention within this stage of the data analysis was to create
21
an overall or abstracted meaning from the data which still reflected the underlying
22
data at an interpretative rather than a descriptive level
23
Based on the recommendation by Hill et al. (2005) that themes are labelled to provide a
24
common unit for describing results and to further aid with future between study comparisons
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the following theme labels will be applied when describing the findings; Themes applying to
1
7 or more participants are referred to as general themes; Themes applying to 5 or 6
2
participants are referred to as typical themes; Themes applying to 2, 3 and 4 participants are
3
referred to as variant themes.
4
Credibility and Trustworthiness
5
The credibility and trustworthiness of the data was assured through multiple processes in line
6
with guidelines for completing and reporting qualitative research (Yardley, 2008; Tong,
7
Sainsbury & Craig, 2007). For example, all participants were sent their transcripts and asked
8
to review them and given the opportunity to add, delete or rework any data that they felt did
9
not accurately represent their experiences. Furthermore, several samples of the analysis were
10
discussed and cross analysed by the research team. Consensus was agreed on the meaning
11
units, categories, core ideas and themes/categories within these transcripts. Five of the
12
interviews were fully analysed by three researchers, two trainee psychologists and one
13
research psychologist. Therefore, four auditors were involved in validating and modifying the
14
analysis of the primary researcher. All data analysis was then further cross checked and
15
closely reviewed by the research supervisor. During the write up, the primary researcher
16
grounded Domains, Categories and Themes/Subcategories in multiple examples from the
17
transcripts. This was completed with the aim of illustrating examples and demonstrating a fit
18
between the data and the meaning that was assigned.
19
Ethical approval
20
Ethical approval for this research study was obtained from the School of Psychology
21
Research Ethics Committee, Trinity College Dublin.
22
Results and Discussion
23
The emergence of depression
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The first domain that emerged from the thematic analysis was entitled; The emergence of
1
depression. This domain which consisted of three categories and ten themes is presented in
2
table 2.
3
INSERT TABLE 2 HERE
4
While the benefits to having a salient athletic identity have been discussed in previous
5
literature (e.g Horton & Mack, 2000), the participants experiences in this paper reflect what
6
Brewer et al. (1993) termed the ‘Achilles heel’ associated with having an overly salient
7
athletic understanding of self. Central to the athletes understanding of the development of
8
their depression were issues pertaining to identity and an ‘unhealthy’ or ‘dysfunctional’
9
relationship with sport. Indeed, an exclusive identity on the all-consuming demands of sport
10
represented a general theme within the findings. One participant stated; I was eating and
11
drinking and sleeping sport, it was my focus every day. Whatever in my life that had to be
12
jigged around, my mind was on it (P, 2). The social influence on identity development
13
(Stryker & Burke, 2000) was clearly expressed in this study as the athletes recounted how
14
their athletic sense of self became more salient through the positive reinforcement received
15
within the wider sporting community. Another important related vulnerability factor for
16
depression was expressed in the theme: Sporting performance publically evaluated and
17
perceived acceptance in elite environment conditional on results. This finding could be
18
compared to previous research that captures the highly demanding and pressurised elite
19
sporting environment, where performance narratives are observed to be the dominant
20
message that athletes internalise (Carless et al., 2009). One participant reflected; “A positive
21
and negative reaction (from coaches/sponsors) is based on performance, we appreciate and
22
affirm each other for things that we do as opposed to who we actually are (P, 6). The
23
typically endorsed theme; Global self-worth conditional on results and levels of perceived
24
acceptance in elite sport further emphasises how for most of the participants their “worth was
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on the line when playing sport” (P, 3). Drawing on person centred theory (Mearns, Thorne &
1
Mcleod, 2013), it could be suggested that while engaging with sport under these perceived
2
‘conditions of worth’, it is understandable that the athletes typically developed an external
3
locus of evaluation and endorsed the theme: Playing sport to prove worth and gain acceptance
4
from others. Previous empirical research has suggested that high degrees of external
5
motivation can have a detrimental impact on an athlete’s wellbeing and overall functioning in
6
sport (Lemyre et al., 2007).
7
Another important component of the athletes understanding of depression was related
8
to their relationship with the masculine values espoused in the elite sport context (Steinfeldt
9
& Steinfeld, 2010). While conformity to masculine norms is often observed to be adaptive is
10
some contexts (Levant & Kopecky, 1995), when difficulties in their life emerged there was
11
little space for the participants to admit despair and express vulnerability. A typical theme
12
endorsed within this domain; Emphasise on and the need to hide frailties and project images
13
of strength speaks to messages they received from the sporting culture and internalised as an
14
important component of their athletic identity. One participant reflected: In sport being
15
tough and being driven are really admired(P, 8). The theme further supports the argument
16
that in addition to their worth being conditional on results, performances and actions on the
17
sporting stage, they were expected to express positivity, deny weakness, display emotionless
18
qualities and fit the script of the mentally tough athlete.
19
A typical theme endorsed by the athletes reflected the: obsessive drive and will to win
20
they had during their sporting careers. While this dedication, which one participant described
21
as “bloody mindedness, not willing to stop doing something” (P, 7) is positively reinforced in
22
sporting environments and is a characteristic that is central to being an elite level athlete
23
(Jones, Hanton & Connaughton 2007), for some participants it was a psychological trait that
24
when coupled with the aforementioned external demands contributed to the development or
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rendered them vulnerable to depression. This was observed in the variant theme: Obsessive
1
drive and not feeling able to practice self-care in the context of persistent
2
financial/sponsorship demands.
3
An important typical precipitating factor for depression in this study reflected:
4
Unacceptable results or loss of skills shown in competition. This fits with the term ‘narrative
5
wreckage’ recently employed by Carless et al. (2009) to describe the psychological impact
6
and emotional consequences of failing to live up to the internalised performance narrative in
7
the highest echelons of their sport. Central to the concept of identity foreclosure is the idea
8
that it closes off any further exploration of other identities or social roles (Warriner &
9
Lavallee, 2008). Athletes in previous studies infused all areas of life with sport while having
10
diminished concern or time to focus on broader life concerns (Carless et al. 2009; Lavallee &
11
Robinson, 2007). Within this study, participants typically endorsed the theme; Inability to
12
cope with broader life stressors/vulnerabilities or adjust in the off season. For some of these
13
participants their sporting career had masked problems or had not allowed space to develop
14
skills to deal with life outside the athletic domain. “Sport had masked problems in my
15
personal life, on some level I had been using it to mask over my cracks and keep me going”
16
(P, 1). On some level this fits with Miller et al’s. (2002) suggestion that athletes are
17
encouraged to develop performance excellence in sport at the expense of developing a
18
multidimensional self. A related variant theme that was endorsed reflected the precipitating
19
factor for depression; Adjusting to post competition void regardless of result and/or the anti-
20
climax and lack of satisfaction derived from success. While sport demanded so much
21
attention for such prolonged periods of time, during the off season or in moments when they
22
had space to reflect on their life and on their experiences, more uncomfortable emotions or
23
questions about their existence began to emerge. For some of the athletes, these vulnerable
24
experiences and existential concerns arose even after achieving their goals and childhood
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dreams. This finding can be compared to retirement experiences where athletes have spoken
1
about feeling lost or undefined and not having an understanding of self when their careers
2
came to an end (Lavallee et al., 2007). These findings differ in the fact that such emotional
3
difficulties arose during rather than post career.
4
The manifestation of symptoms of depression
5
The second domain in the findings was entitled: The manifestation of symptoms of
6
depression. This domain which consisted of three categories and ten themes is presented in
7
table 3.
8
INSERT TABLE 3 HERE
9
The participants endorsed the variant theme: A lack of enjoyment derived from sport
10
and a sense of going through the motions. While this retrospectively represented early signs
11
of their slide into depression, the general theme endorsed: Continued competing at an elite
12
level without initial impact on ability to function conveys how the athletes initially responded
13
to their difficulties. One of the athletes reflected I was still doing fairly well, if you look
14
back on the record books I was still maintaining a top 30 or 40 world ranking and winning an
15
odd tournament here and there” (P, 8). Another general theme: Gaining temporary relief and
16
avoiding depression symptomatology through participating in sport offers insight into some
17
of the possible functions and benefits associated with taking a more action orientated or
18
avoidant approach to their early experiences of distress. One participant described how:
19
playing was the escape for me.. I guess that was where I was most comfortable” (P, 5).
20
The findings in this domain can be compared with previous qualitative explorations of
21
depression in men (Brownhill et al., 2005; Chuick et al., 2009; Heifner, 1997; Oliffe et al.,
22
2010). Previous empirical research suggests that depression in men often presents in more
23
externalised and avoidant patterns where they may over invest in work, present as anxiously
24
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16
attached to work performance and make conscious or unconscious efforts to hide distress
1
form their peers (Brownhill et al., 2005; Chuick et al., 2009; Heifner, 1997; Oliffe et al.,
2
2010). Indeed, the fact that the majority of the participants related to the theme: Early
3
depression symptoms were more apparent away from sporting environment gives further
4
credence to the view that the athletes depression did not present, at least at its early stage in a
5
form that would warrant a DSM-V diagnosis (APA, 2013). The typically endorsed theme;
6
Relationship breakdowns both in and outside of sport further supports the presence of more
7
externalised symptoms that have been displayed in previous research (Oliffe et al., 2010).
8
The participants typically endorsed the theme: Shame and hiding depression
9
vulnerabilities from coaches/opponent’s/teammates. One participant described his internal
10
dialogue: “I can’t tell my sponsors that this is happening because I could be a liability to
11
them, does suicidal represent your brand?” (P, 2). The athlete’s view that depression
12
represented the antithesis of what would be accepted in sport is understandable as desired
13
behaviours such as; ability to goal set, being self-directed, prioritising sport over other
14
activities, dealing with setbacks, having unshakable confidence, superior concentration skills
15
and pushing through pain. (MacNamara, Button & Collins, 2010; Crust, 2008) do not fit with
16
the low mood, poor motivation, irritability and lack of concentration associated with the
17
experience of depression (APA, 2013). Taking the above discussion into account it is not
18
surprising that the variant theme: Early experience of depression temporarily spurts a push
19
into sport orientated determination and overtraining emerged within the data. “My train of
20
thought with depression was that I am a failure, I need to be strong, as an athlete when you
21
make a mistake you have to bounce back, the races don't stop” (P, 6). Furthermore, given that
22
many of the athletes individual sense of self was so intertwined with sporting performance
23
and what others thought of them, returning to the sporting arena in the name of looking for
24
success and external feedback seems an understandable desire. Another process at play is
25
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17
recognised in the generally endorsed them: Inaccurate self-understanding and insight about
1
depression. It would appear that this theme is central to the shame and confusion the athletes
2
experienced. A related general theme: Natural self-critique turns to global negative self-
3
evaluation further conveys the internal cognitive processes that were manifesting underneath
4
the desperate attempts to present themselves as ‘mentally tough’ in public. Such internal
5
dialogues and inaccurate understandings of depression is observed in previous descriptions of
6
male depression. For example, some evidence has suggested that men who align themselves
7
to masculine norms may have difficulty in identifying and communicating emotions and
8
affective experience (Levant et al., 2003). The findings could be compared to previous
9
empirical research that showed how depressive symptoms triggered self-doubt and broad
10
concerns about having a ‘faulty’ masculinity (Oliffe et al., 2010). It could be suggested that
11
additional factors may impact on athletes understanding of depression. For example, a
12
number of the athletes in the study understood their early depression as a lack of mental skills
13
or poor sport psychology. “I just thought it was my own mental lack, I thought my mental
14
game was just weak” (P, 2). This highlights a possible risk that athletes may view their
15
mental health through these performance narratives and in the process fail to develop the
16
vocabulary to understand, recognise and explain depression.
17
A typically endorsed theme: Depression intensifying and the ability to keep hiding
18
depression in competition shows how the athletes failed in their bid to hide their distress and
19
overcome their problems through avoidant and action orientated behaviours. In fact, many
20
examples were seen where the depression or difficulties were exposed or came to the surface
21
when playing sport. Previous empirical research has described similar intensifying, escalating
22
and cyclical patterns of depression in men where suppression leads to externalising
23
behaviours and a decisive event. For example, Brownhill et al. (2005) used the term ‘big
24
build’ to convey the process of negative emotion (sadness, anger) intensifying through
25
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18
suppressive processes of coping. The participants in the study reported experiencing a ‘snap’
1
or a particular turning point when their distress and behaviour reached ‘out of control’ or
2
‘unacceptable’ levels. I couldn't focus on what the task in hand was, and (perform skills in
3
his sport), every (game) felt like a house of cards, like sooner or later I was going to collapse.
4
(P, 3). Scholars have suggested that masculine norms limit social acceptance of depressive
5
encounters, prohibit expression of typical depression symptomatology, restrict ways by which
6
men can cope and encourage a pattern of both masking emotions and an escalating of self-
7
destructive behaviours (Valkonen & Hänninen, 2013).
8
9
Adaptive and maladaptive processes of recovery.
10
The third domain in the findings was concerned with the process of recovery and the
11
associated helpful and hindering coping strategies employed by the athletes. This domain
12
which consisted of three categories and thirteen themes is presented in table 4.
13
INSERT TABLE 4 HERE
14
Overtraining interpreted as self-harm which was expressed as a variant theme within the data
15
reflects how extreme overinvestment in sporting activities may have served the function of a
16
cry for help and a maladaptive attempt to communicate their internal distress (Armstrong,
17
Warren, Warren, 1991; O’Connor, Morgan, Raglin, Barksdale, Kalin, 1989; Raglin, 1993). “I
18
am overtraining in the gym, to the point where my hands were bleeding” (P, 4). Considering
19
the content of earlier discussions that outlined psychological characteristics espoused and
20
encouraged within the domain of elite sport, (for example the ability to focus and block out
21
distractions, competitiveness, hard-work ethic, ability to set and achieve goals, pushing self to
22
limits) it is understandable how such extreme behaviours could possibly have been reinforced
23
or at least not recognised as problematic in nature.
24
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19
A sport specific barrier to recovery was seen in the typically endorsed theme; Dealing
1
with publicity and the continued expectations from elite sport. It would appear that the
2
external pressures and conditions of worth that impacted on the development and initial
3
maintenance of depression, further exerted their influence as the athletes embarked on
4
recovery. For some of the participants they felt challenged in their attempt to bring changes in
5
self, for example attitudes to self-care into the athletic domain. This supports previous
6
empirical research that emphasised how athletes often felt silenced in their attempt to
7
construct attitudes and behaviours that did not fit within the conditions of worth espoused in
8
that pressurised and demanding environment (Carless et al., 2009). A variant theme endorsed
9
within the interviews: A lack of psychological support or understanding of depression from
10
others reflects another barrier to recovery. The lack of understanding from others regarding
11
depression could be linked to previous authors who have described how our tendency to
12
idealise athletes often encourages us to not understand or observe mental health issues in
13
those who play elite sport (Reardon et al., 2010).
14
The variant theme: Support from significant other, recognising depression and
15
developing hope which was endorsed by some of the participants conveys how interventions
16
from significant others often represented the turning point in their story of depression.
17
Indeed, social support has been established as a pertinent protective factor in the development
18
of depression (Carr & McNulty, 2014), while an external intervention or interruption was
19
central to the beginning of the recovery process specifically with males encountering
20
depression (Pederson & Vogel, 2007).
21
Previous empirical research not directly studying depression has shown how athletes
22
needed to gain ‘asylum’ or break away from sport in efforts to escape performance values
23
and deal with emotional distress (Carless et al, 2009). Those findings can be observed in this
24
study within the typically endorsed them; Separate from elite sport environment to
25
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20
understand depression and embark on self-discovery. Considering many of the participants
1
understood their depression as a consequence of their identity being intertwined to their
2
performance as an athlete, and in further reflecting on the masculine dominant values that
3
seemed to discourage emotional expression and self-reflection, it is understandable that they
4
needed to gain distance and perspective from this environment during their attempts to
5
understand and recover from depression. One participant reflected: I felt I needed to find
6
myself away from sport, find out who I was as a person” (P, 1).
7
While sporting characteristics were perceived as possible aetiological and maintaining
8
factors for depression, there was a clear sense within the data that many of these factors were
9
protective in nature and used to their advantage in recovery. This is supported in the typically
10
endorsed theme; Channelling sporting will to win and personal agency towards a high level
11
of commitment to recovery. As one athlete reflected, ‘what got me here, got me back out
12
again.’ (P, 4). It was observed that as they recognised they had depression, they took personal
13
responsibility and embarked on their therapeutic journeys with the same focus and
14
commitment that was demanded of them in their respective sports. Indeed, the personal
15
characteristics of the clients, for example having high levels of motivation and belief in the
16
process of therapy is viewed as central to successful outcomes. (Paulson, Truscott & Stuart,
17
1999).
18
The typically endorsed theme: Experiencing acceptance and expressing real self in
19
therapeutic relationship emerged as a decisive component to adaptive coping and supports
20
previous empirical research that has emphasised the importance of emotional expression,
21
receiving acceptance and building a strong professional relationship within a therapeutic
22
intervention (Paulson et al. 1999). Furthermore, a central aspect of the athletes understanding
23
of their recovery is observed in the typically endorsed theme; Being less defined by sport,
24
broadening identity and adopting self-care. In many ways this theme reflects the result of
25
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21
taking the time to develop what Miller et al (2002) referred to as the person behind the
1
athlete. As one athlete reflected; I went back as a different person, as a different athlete, had
2
to re-invent myself, sport wasn’t the whole me’ (P, 5). Indeed, previous research has shown
3
that athletes can resist performance narratives or indeed adopt new narratives from which to
4
participate in sport (Carless et al., 2013; Carless et al., 2012).
5
The typical theme: Developing intrinsic motivation an internal locus of evaluations
6
and falling in love with sport again represented another aspect of the athlete’s new sense of
7
self. It supports previous research that emphasised the importance of having a self-defined
8
motivation for competing in sport (Lemyre et al., 2007). Incorporating an internal locus of
9
evaluation is observed to be central to an individual’s overall health and wellbeing (Mearns et
10
al., 2013). I came to a point in my life where I was able to realise that there is a lot of things
11
that I could control, but there were things I couldn’t control in my life, other people’s
12
reactions” (P,7). Another aspect of their recovery is reflected in the theme: Coming out and
13
gaining self-acceptance in sport and society as central to healing and recovery. While
14
previous themes have reflected on the negative impact sport had on recovery, four of the
15
athlete’s emphasised how being accepted for having had depression within their sporting
16
careers consolidated the recovery process. The fact that they had previously often felt
17
silenced, misunderstood or not valued for their whole being in this environment, seemed to
18
add to the power of this acceptance.
19
Strengths and limitations
20
Given the challenges associated with accessing an elite sport population (Beamon, 2012) the
21
profile of the participants and the classification of their levels of expertise into specific
22
categories developed by Swann et al. (2015) are recognised strengths of this study. While
23
seven out of the eight participants confirmed that they were diagnosed with depression, no
24
third party information was sought and comorbidity which is observed as the norm with
25
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RUNNING HEAD: DEPRESSION, MALE ATHLETES, ELITE SPORT CULTURES
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depression (APA, 2013), was not accounted for in this study. It is possible that the findings
1
representing the experience of depression may be a function of some correlated comorbid
2
disorder.
3
Researchers have previously called into question the reliability of employing
4
retrospective designs. Such criticisms have largely revolved around issues pertaining to
5
possible recall bias. This seems particularly relevant to depression as evidence suggests that
6
memory loss is a possible side effect of MDD (Gotlib et al. 2010). The current study
7
contained two participants who reflected on depressive experiences that occurred up to and
8
beyond ten years prior to the interviews.
9
Implications of research
10
While it is beyond the scope of the study to decipher the intricacies of each participant’s
11
experience with depression, the findings offer numerous themes that from the athlete’s
12
perspective, provide a broad picture of some of the important aspects. While the participants,
13
experiences can be viewed from a multitude of perspectives, including person centred theory
14
(e.g Mearns et al., 2013), masculine frameworks (Addis, 2008) and theories of identity
15
(Brewer et al., 1993), the processes that underlie the athletes experiences can only be
16
hypothesised.
17
Data that emerged across all three domains may provide elite sport coaches/teams and
18
organisations with understanding and insight into the personal vulnerabilities that athletes
19
may experience beneath the tough exterior that they are likely to portray. It may further draw
20
their attention to the role that sport may have in the development and maintenance of
21
psychological distress. With specific regard to the experience of depression, it may be
22
important for individuals working with athletes to be aware of some of the more atypical,
23
masked or sport specific expressions of depression. Furthermore, while mental toughness and
24
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23
psychological resilience is encouraged within the elite sport environment, this study would
1
argue that these skills and attributes should not be fostered at the expense of healthy
2
emotional expression. The findings support previous studies which have reflected on the
3
importance of developing all aspects of the person behind the athlete and encouraging an
4
environment where personal development and professional excellence are equalled (Miller et
5
al., 2002).
6
This paper may provide mental health professionals with some important insights into
7
areas related to detection, assessment and treatment of depression with male athletes. As
8
recognised in previous qualitative explorations of depression in men in non-sporting contexts
9
(Martin et al., 2013), it may be important to look beyond the DSM criteria (APA, 2013) as
10
the data suggests that depression may manifest in more atypical, externalised and masked
11
forms in this particular population. For example, the athletes in this study suggested that their
12
outward appearance and actions (performing at a high level, training, conversing with
13
teammates) did not match the underlying distress they were experiencing. It could be
14
suggested that psychologists working with athletes would need to be extra prudent when
15
assessing for depression. For example, it may be important to ask more questions pertaining
16
to their functioning away from sport. Relationship breakdowns and over investment in
17
training may be possible signs as depression may initially manifest through these processes.
18
Providing empathy and acceptance is so central to humanistic therapies (Mearns et al., 2013),
19
that developing psychological understanding and formulations of depression while drawing
20
on positive athlete traits may be important considerations in any therapeutic intervention.
21
Future research
22
As aforementioned, the experience of depression is seen to be heavily influenced on context
23
(Cochran et al., 2000). It is worth noting that many types of sports have varying demands and
24
differing cultural influences and expectations (Steinfieldt et al., 2012). While elite athletes in
25
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24
any sport may encounter ubiquitous challenges, future research may benefit from exploring
1
similar lines of enquiry in one specific context, for example in elite male rugby. There is also
2
a need to examine in more depth moderating factors (e.g. athletic sense of self and sense of
3
identity and masculine elite sport environments) for the relationship between depression and
4
participation in elite sport.
5
6
Conclusion
7
This paper represents the first published study to explore elite male athlete’s experiences of
8
depression during their sporting careers. The findings give insight into how the culture of
9
sport and the interplay between the athletes sense of self and the elite performance
10
environment influenced how they experienced, expressed and responded to depression during
11
their careers. The three domains represent the major themes disclosed in the course of data
12
collection and illustrate a categorical interpretation of how the emergence of depression was
13
recognised, the nature of how depression manifested in the participants and how the athletes
14
navigated their way through the recovery process.
15
Data analysis suggested how masculine values, commitment to excellence and high levels of
16
athletic identity which were embraced by the athletes and reinforced by the elite sporting
17
environment played a role in the development and maintenance of their depression. The
18
findings further point to how the male athletes experienced and responded to depression
19
during their careers was influenced by a myriad of factors embedded in the masculine elite
20
sport performance focused environment. The athletes performing within the elite sport culture
21
appeared to respond to depression often with further investment in sport and with more
22
atypical, externalising or avoidance expressions of their internal distress. The recovery
23
process was outlined and revealed ensuing periods or episodes of high, lows and turning
24
points. Recovery, as in most conditions was not a linear, straightforward process. Effective
25
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forms of coping included; expressing vulnerability and cementing genuine connections with
1
others, taking a break from the elite sport environment and drawing on high levels of
2
commitment (athlete characteristic) to understand depression. Building a broader sense of
3
identity and returning to sport with greater self-knowledge, higher levels of self-acceptance
4
and a more healthy relationship with sport represented central processes in recovery. While it
5
may provide coaches, sporting organisations and mental health professionals with some
6
preliminary insight into the area of depression in elite male sport, further research is needed
7
to develop our understanding of this complex and understudied phenomenon.
8
9
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Table 1
1
Participant demographic information
2
Participant
(P)
Age
Nationality
Format
Elite level
Diagnosis
of
depression*
Treatment
1
22
British/
Irish
Team
Competitive
elite
Yes
Yes
2
29
North
America
Individual
Competitive
elite
Yes
Yes
3
32
North
America
Team
Successful
elite
No
No
4
58
British/
Irish
Team
World class
elite
Yes
Yes
5
45
North
America
Individual
Successful
elite
Yes
Yes
6
35
British/
Irish
Team
Competitive
elite
Yes
Yes
7
37
Australia/
Oceania
Team
Successful
elite
Yes
Yes
8
65
North
America/
Canada
Individual
Successful
elite
Yes
Yes
3
*Diagnosis- The ‘diagnosis of depression’ column above, indicates whether or not the athlete
4
was formally diagnosed with depression by a mental health professional such as a GP,
5
Psychiatrist, or Psychologist.
6
†The treatment column above indicates whether the athlete had ever attended for
7
psychological therapy, such as cognitive behaviour therapy or psychodynamic therapy, or
8
similar clinical intervention and or were prescribed medication such as anti-depressants or a
9
similar psychopharmacological treatment indicted for treating depression.
10
11
12
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Table 2
Domain 1: The emergence of depression
Categories and Themes and No. of participants disclosing the theme
Category 1: Extreme athletic identity and elite sporting pressures as important
vulnerability factors for depression
Exclusive identity on the all-consuming demands of sport (7/8)
Sporting performance publicly evaluated & perceived acceptance in elite (6/8)
environment (from coaches/fans/family/sponsors) conditional on results
Global self-worth conditional on result and levels of perceived acceptance in
elite sport (6/8)
Emphasis on and the need to hide frailties and project images of strength (6/8)
Category 2: Intrinsic characteristics, extrinsic motivations, external locus of
evaluation and their relationship with depression
Obsessive drive and will to win (8/8)
Playing sport to prove worth and gain acceptance from others (family/
coaches) (5/8)
Category 3: Perceived precipitating factors for depression
Inability to cope with broader life stressors/vulnerabilities or adjust in the
Offseason (6/8)
Unacceptable results or loss of skills shown in competition (5/8)
Obsessive drive and not feeling able to practice self-care in the context (3/8)
of persistent financial/sponsorship demands (3/8)
Adjusting to post-competition void regardless of result and/or the
anti-climax and lack of satisfaction derived from success (3/8)
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______________________________________________________________________
Table 3
Domain 2: The manifestation of symptoms of depression both in and outside sport
Categories and Themes and No. of participants disclosing the theme
Category 1: Initial manifestation of depression in training and competition
Continued competing at an elite level without initial impact on ability to
function (7/8)
Inaccurate self-understanding and insight about depression (7/8)
Gaining temporary relief and avoiding depression symptomology through
participating in sport (6/8)
A lack of enjoyment derived from sport and a sense of going through the
motions (4/8)
Early experience of depression temporarily spurts a push into sport orientated
determination and overtraining (3/8)
Category 2: Initial manifestation of depression outside of training and
competition
Early depression symptoms more apparent away from sporting
environment (5/8)
Relationship breakdowns in sport and broader life (5/8)
Category 3: The development of depression both in and outside sport
Natural self-critique turns to global negative self-evaluations (7/8)
Shame and hiding depression/vulnerabilities from coaches/opponents
/teammates (6/8)
Depression intensifying and the inability to keep hiding depression in
competition (6/8)
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Table 4
Domain 3: Adaptive and maladaptive coping in the process of recovery
Categories and Themes and No. of participants disclosing the theme
Category 1: The experience of maladaptive coping responses and the perceived
barriers to recovery
Isolating self from social support (6/8)
Using alcohol to gain temporary relief and to both avoid depression and
associated emotions (5/8)
Lack of available psychological support or understanding of depression from others
(4/8)
Not being listened to and the lack of collaboration in first experience of
treatment (4/8)
Dealing with publicity and the continued expectations from elite sport (4/8)
Overtraining interpreted as self-harm (3/8)
Category 2: Adaptive processes and turning points in recovery
Separate from elite sport environment to understand depression and embark
on self- discovery (6/8)
Channelling sporting will to win and personal agency towards a high level of
commitment to recovery (6/8)
Experiencing acceptance & expressing real self in therapeutic relationship (5/8)
Support from significant other, recognising depression & developing hope (4/8)
Category 3: The process of recovery and the transitions within the self
Being less defined by sport, broadening identity and adopting self-care (5/8)
Developing intrinsic motivation an internal locus of evaluation and falling
in love with sport again (5/8)
Coming out and gaining self-acceptance in sport and society as central to
healing and recovery (4/8)
1
Provisional
... Mental health is impaired when athletes are unable to find their role within the organization to which they belong (Ojio et al., 2021). In contrast, individuals' perception of their coaches' acceptance of their performance has been reported to a protective factor against depressive symptoms (Doherty et al., 2016). Thus, athletes who cannot perceive their competence in their team are likely to have depressive symptoms. ...
... This study is considered necessary for the following reasons: There is limited research on the relationship between organization-based self-esteem and depressive symptoms among athletes. Furthermore, self-competence within a team (a protective factor against depressive symptoms among athletes) has only been examined in case studies (Doherty et al., 2016). Therefore, to clarify ways to treat depressive symptoms, it is necessary to suggest pragmatic protective factors. ...
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... For example, players may fear the loss of playing time, scorn from teammates, coaches, family, and fans, and ultimately being passed over for professional hockey playing opportunities in the National Hockey League (Bauman, 2016;Todd & Edwards, 2021). Furthermore, players are exposed to values that serve to reinforce qualities (e.g., competition, aggression, toughness) that are often associated with traditional conceptualizations of masculinity (Doherty et al., 2016;Steinfeldt & Steinfeldt, 2012). In turn, these masculine norms (e.g., strength, winning, violence, dominations) can have negative consequences on players' willingness to disclose mental health concerns given that they can be interpreted as vulnerabilities and/or weaknesses (Doherty et al., 2016;Steinfeldt & Steinfeldt, 2012). ...
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... A recent study showed that males were less likely than females to seek professional help from a psychologist within the healthy athlete population (Tahtinen & Kristjansdottir, 2019). The process of socializing male athletes into masculine roles may be especially prevalent within the sport culture where the masking of anxiety, vulnerability (Doherty, Hannigan, & Campbell, 2016) and demonstrating toughness, and ignoring or downplaying injury may be strongly emphasized (Steinfeldt, Steinfeldt, England, & Speight, 2009). Previous research also indicated that males were likely to report lower anxiety levels than females while conducting risk-taking activities traditionally associated with masculine roles (Kerr & Vlaminkx, 1997). ...
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Given the complexity of the talent development process, it seems likely that a range of psychological factors underpin an athlete's ability to translate potential into top-class performance. Therefore, the purpose of part one of this two-part investigation was to explore the attributes that facilitate the successful development of athletes from initial involvement to achieving and maintaining world-class status. Seven elite athletes and a parent of each of these athletes were interviewed regarding their own (their son's/ daughter's) development in sport. Data were content analyzed using a grounded theory approach. Although sporting achievement was conceptualized as being multidimensional, psychological factors were highlighted as the key determinants of those who emerged as talented and maintained excellence. Accordingly, we suggest that talent identification and development programs should place greater emphasis on the advancement and application of psychological behaviors at an early stage to optimize both the development and performance of athletes.
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Several meta-analyses examining the effects of exercise on depression have been criticized for including studies of poor methodological integrity. More recent meta-analyses addressed the most common criticism by including only randomized control trials; however, these analyses suffer from incomplete literature searches and lack of moderating variable analyses. Using a more extensive search procedure, the current meta-analysis examines the effects of exercise on depressive symptoms in 58 randomized trials (n = 2982). An overall effect size of −0.80 indicates participants in the exercise treatment had significantly lower depression scores than those receiving the control treatment. This 3/4 SD advantage represents level 1, Grade A evidence for the effects of exercise upon depression. Analysis of moderating variables examined the influence of population characteristics, exercise characteristics and methodological characteristics. Examination of clinical significance in 16 trials with clinically depressed patients found 9 of 16 exercise treatment groups were classified as ‘recovered’ at post-treatment, with another three groups classified as ‘improved’. Analysis showed dropout rates for the exercise treatment were similar to those found in psychotherapeutic and drug interventions.
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Objectives: To explore: (i) How elite and professional sport culture might steer individuals towards particular stories, identities, and actions; (ii) How athletes navigate or respond to these cultural pressures. Design: Cross-sectional qualitative methodology. Method: Narrative interviews and focus groups with 21 elite and professional athletes followed by a narrative analysis of structure and form. Results: Athletes demonstrated one of three processes. Individuals who live the part of athlete story their life and act in ways that conform to a culturally dominant performance narrative. Here, identity is foreclosed, relationships sacrificed in the pursuit of success, and long-term wellbeing threatened. Over time, alternative narrative types may provoke moral reflection on their story and actions. Individuals who resist the part of athlete sustain a life story and identity that deviates from the performance narrative, drawing on alternative narrative types. Their resistance is typically overt as they publicly demonstrate actions that align with their multidimensional story. Individuals who play the part of athlete modify their story and actions depending on sociocultural context. These individuals covertly maintain a multidimensional life story, but silence this story when powerful others require performance stories. Conclusions: Although some elite/professional athletes' life stories revolve around performance outcomes, this is not a prerequisite for excellence. Other athletes achieve excellence while sustaining a multidimensional life story and identity. To do so, they navigate a culture that expects a performance focus, through overt resistance or covertly manipulating their public stories and actions.