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Why Are My Athletes Struggling: Insights on Anxiety & Depression

Written By: Kylie Lahey

As a coach, you’ve seen this story repeatedly: two swimmers of equal ability are preparing for a meet two weeks away and as today’s practice begins, one swimmer is confident and focused on the workout of the day. The other is worried now about making qualifying times and is announcing they are going to have a bad practice...again. They are equal in ability, so do you recognize where the second swimmer’s worry and struggle is coming from and how to help? What’s different about the first swimmer - why aren’t they freaking out too?


Let’s start with two popular buzzwords - anxiety and depression - and begin a conversation around these words and focus on the symptoms many individuals are experiencing as mental health finally gets the attention it deserves.


Anxiety: feeling “on-edge”, anxious, restless, ruminating on thoughts, impatient, aggressive, avoidant, or frozen (fight/flight/freeze response)


Depression: constant sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, lack of motivation, feeling numb or “zoned out”


As Brene Brown writes in her most recent book, Atlas of the Heart, “we can’t change what we don’t notice”. Now that we are noticing mental health symptoms, we need to ask, how did some of our swimmers become anxious or depressed, and how can they overcome these conditions?


I do not want to oversimplify the complexities of these mental health conditions (or bore readers with my tendency to nerd out about these topics) - so here are some ways to explain the “why and how” of these two prominent mental health conditions:


Anxiety occurs when our perspective is too far zoomed out or too far zoomed in.

Depression results from emotional overwhelm or emotional avoidance.


Our emotions are tied to our nervous system and can be explained by the Polyvagal Theory. Imagine a graph from your math class days, with two horizontal constant lines on the “Y” axis that create the top and bottom of a “window of tolerance”. Everything between those two lines is the amount of emotion we are able to tolerate. When emotionally healthy, our nervous system keeps us in a tolerable state and activates to hype us up or calm us down whenever necessary.


But when our nervous system becomes over-activated for too long - whether by a constant hypervigilance or anticipation of an upcoming stressor, we move outside the window of tolerance. Think of this like trying to take in more air after you’ve already filled your lungs, or adding water to a full bucket - your lungs will burst and the bucket will overflow. When a person’s emotions move above their window of tolerance, they begin to experience anxiety symptoms. And when those symptoms occur long enough that the body tires of living in fight/flight/freeze mode, the brain will act to protect the host. It triggers a fancy system called the vagus nerve to shut down the sympathetic nervous system (by activating the parasympathetic nervous system) to the opposite end of the window of tolerance - the bottom - and thereby expressing symptoms of depression.


With that explanation of the biology behind the window of tolerance to help us understand how anxiety and depression express themselves, we can better understand how this translates to behavior.


Remember - anxiety occurs when our perspective is too far zoomed out or zoomed too far in, and depression results from emotional overwhelm or emotional avoidance.


Being anxious about something in the present is frequently made better by zooming out, taking a longer view, and remaining curious about the long-term impact of the situation. Having anxiety about a week of test sets coming up is not practical to worry about a week prior. With a better understanding of anxiety it’s easier for coaches, parents, and support staff to help their athletes handle stress with these techniques.


Is the athlete’s perspective zoomed in too much? One of my favorite activities to teach athletes is the 5x3 tool. How much will the feared circumstances that are causing the anxiety matter in three hours? Three days? Three weeks? Three months? Three years? This process gives validity to the concerns while allowing them to remain mindful that the stress peak will pass.


Is the athlete’s perspective zoomed out too much? I use the acronym WIN when asking athletes about themselves: What’s Important Now? I have the athletes compartmentalize and focus on whatever task is in front of them for the present obligation. As swimmers, it can be one streamline at a time, one interval at a time, one set at a time - all in an effort to keep them present in the moment.


Depression, as noted earlier in the window of tolerance concept, occurs after being emotionally overwhelmed, or after we avoid feeling or dealing with emotions to the point that our body literally shuts us down to protect us. This concept can apply to a swimmer dealing with the emotions of an upcoming championship meet that has been in a long plateau, and they are concerned they won’t perform well when the time comes. It’s also possible an athlete brings a complicated family life to their performance emotional issues - reverting to a pattern from childhood where the brain shuts down protectively as a result of a highly emotive household or high pressure expectations from parents (or coaches or fans!).


To deal with the emotional overwhelm and avoidance, I often suggest journaling as one place to start. Have the athlete write down three things they did well each day and one area for improvement. This simple exercise helps the brain release dopamine as a reward for being productive and reinforcing accomplishments. I also suggest they reflect on their life in their journal as if they were talking to a friend. The brain uses the same mechanisms to transcribe thoughts onto paper as it does when talking, so it can have the same effect as venting frustrations out loud - without making anyone else listen.


At the end of the day, remember that empathy will be the number one way to support an athlete on their mental health journey. You have every right to suggest to athletes that they obtain further support for their mental health if you feel they need it. Much like active recovery, staying on top of mental health keeps the emotions from life’s events more manageable - and within the beloved window of tolerance.


Kylie Lahey, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker native to Denver, Colorado but living in Austin, Texas. Lahey received her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Secondary English Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2014 and her Master's of Science of Social Work degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2019. Lahey works primarily with athletes in the Division I college setting as a provider of individual and group behavioral health and performance support services across a variety of sports. Lahey also works with coaches, athletic trainers, strength staff, and other athletics professionals to promote mental health awareness and education for supporting elite athletes both within sport and outside of sport. Lahey's additional professional background includes experience as a therapist within high school and eating disorder/behavioral health hospital settings for both adult and adolescent clients. Lahey is a former club swim coach and has an athletic background in competitive swimming, triathlon training, and vinyasa yoga instruction through the Yoga Alliance.

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