The Mental Toll of Toxic Sports Culture

Cate Langhorn & Claire Moeser, Features Editor & Sports Editor

At the professional level

“It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it,” Simone Biles said in an interview with USA Today on Olympic stress. 

With millions of fans watching and expecting the best performance, the pressure athletes can feel to win for a team, for themselves and for their fans can become overwhelming. Biles, an American gymnast who has won a total of 32 medals from world and Olympic competitions, demonstrated this at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when she withdrew from the team competition for mental health reasons. 

With the global reputation Biles has, the pressure to perform well can turn toxic and overwhelming. “Mental health comes first. That’s more important than any other medal you could win,” Biles posted on Twitter a couple weeks after the Tokyo Olympics. 

And Biles is not the only athlete to publicly address mental health concerns. Individual sports are particularly susceptible to toxic sports culture, as it puts an individual on the spot and does not provide the same group strength/comfort that team sports may provide. Ranked No.1 by the World Tennis Association (WTA), tennis player Naomi Osaka, has recently announced she is taking an indefinite break from her sport, pulling out of the upcoming WTA events, according to ABC News. 

Piers Morgan, an often-controversial broadcaster and TV personality, shared his thoughts on Osaka’s withdrawal on Twitter. “People got very upset when I suggested Osaka may be a spoiled brat. Here she is repeatedly smashing up rackets as she loses in the US Open. Then she cried again, and threatened to quit again. If a male tennis player behaved like this, we’d call him…. a spoiled brat,” Morgan tweeted. The comment about Osaka smashing up rackets is a reference to a video in which she is shown smashing tennis rackets in frustration after losing a match. 

Morgan also shared his thoughts on Biles withdrawal from the Olympics on Twitter, with a similar response: “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.”

While athletes who come forward about mental health struggles may receive backlash, it can encourage other athletes to feel more comfortable speaking up about their own mental health. In a poll of 160 Madison athletes, 54.4% said they are now more willing to talk about sport-related mental health issues after Biles and Osaka opened up about theirs.

“I usually see the mental health issues when athletes are solely focused on the outcome,” science teacher and wrestling coach Nick Sylor said. “You’re not focused on the moment, the experience, the growth, the challenge, and the learning. When that’s not your focus then I think we see those mental health issues and sports become toxic. Instead of focusing on how we can improve and enjoy the challenge.”

In addition to coaches, professional athletes can also echo these calls for a focus on prioritizing mental health. 

“By publicly putting their mental health and struggles first, [professional athletes] are encouraging millions of people that watch them to take their mental health seriously,” Caitlynn Hastings (’23), a Madison field hockey player, said.

For athletes, the focus of pushing themselves to the limit and training to maximum effort can come at a cost, causing athletes to lose enjoyment in their sport. When it gets to this point, the sport can become stressful, which means it can become important for athletes to maintain good mental health and to have these conversations about it. 

“Sports is about challenging yourself, and sometimes in challenging ourselves we can lose track of what’s important,” Brit Fehd (’25), a member of Madison’s crew and field hockey teams, said. “Athletes can’t perform at their best if they don’t give their body what it needs—like food and water. We should treat mental health the same way.”   

At the high school level

Youth athletes have to balance sports, school, friends, family, college recruiting and their mental and physical health. The pressure to perform can cause athletes to develop mental illnesses, including eating disorders, anxiety and depression. The physical effects of mental illness can impact the athletic performance and overall well-being of athletes from the youth to professional level. Many Madison athletes relate to the mental health struggles of Biles and Osaka. 

“On [my club] dance team we heard feedback from our coaches like ‘I can see your lunch. Tuck in your stomach.’ Rachel Mahoney (‘22), former dancer, said. “My decision to quit was a really big decision for me because I was struggling with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I struggled in silence for so long; it is reassuring to see professional athletes prioritize their mental health and step away from their sport.”

Youth athletes look up to professional athletes for their strength and determination in their sport. This past summer, Biles directed the media’s attention toward the mental health stigma in sports. 

“What Simone Biles did was super brave,” Mahoney said. “She put her mental health before her team which is hard for any athlete but also really important. As someone who had to step away from my sport to work on my mental health, it is inspiring to see professional athletes do the same thing. I hope it gives athletes who need to take a break from their sports the courage to do so.”

Mental illness isn’t worn like a brace or a cast, and therefore, it is often treated like it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter because it can’t be seen. Athletes are trained to hide their weaknesses from their opponents to keep a competitive advantage. This aspect of sports culture fuels the mental health stigma in sports.

“The stigma surrounding mental health in sports comes from the pressure put on athletes to perform and keep performing without taking time to see if we are okay,” Eric Anderson (‘23), Madison football player and Madison Minds Matter board member, said. “As athletes we are seen as having everything together, but sometimes we are just trying to make it to the next practice with the success of the team on our shoulders.”

In individual sports, this pressure to perform can be heightened when all eyes are on a single athlete. In order to ensure that athletes compete at their best and win, they can fall victim to overtraining. Benham Cobb (’22) swims at Madison, but before that, he competed in gymnastics. Cobb, who was 10 years old at the time, experienced extreme overtraining and criticism from his coach, who expected nothing less than first place. 

“To solely focus on improvement based on the expectations of my gymnastics coach was toxic. It wasn’t until later that I was exposed to the welfare that exists within sports,” Benham Cobb (’22) said. “I wish I was less controlled by my coach, less ignorant at such a young age, more aware of the sports world, more in control of my decisions to pursue my passions. There is more to life than a personal best.”

Cobb has since quit gymnastics and now swims, both for a club team and at Madison. He says that with focus on “encouragement, mindfulness, feasible goal-setting and support,” the threat of a toxic sports environment can be mitigated. 

Mental health organizations are using social media to promote ideas like Cobb’s and provide youth athletes resources for mental health. One of these organizations is Morgan’s Message, which several Madison lacrosse players are involved with. Morgan’s Message was founded by the family of Morgan Rodgers, a collegiate lacrosse player from the Northern Va. area who died by suicide after sustaining a knee injury that led to deteriorating mental health. Through Morgan’s Message, youth and collegiate athletes are ambassadors, advancing conversations surrounding mental health on their school’s campus.

“Mental health is a common struggle that is overlooked in the athletic world,” Paige Counts (’23), Madison field hockey player, lacrosse player and Morgan’s Message Ambassador, said. “I get overwhelmed and stressed about practices and playing time which causes me to not play well and feel tired and sick. The organization is a perfect outlet for student-athletes who understand the pressure to perform to learn that sports are not all that matter.” 

Morgan’s Message Ambassadors at Madison are already making a difference in how mental illness is perceived by normalizing conversations about mental illness on and off the field. Athletes at Madison and around the globe represent the future of sport and the possibility to change the culture and foster acceptance of mental illness.

“I have seen an increase in advocacy for mental health awareness over my career, but there is still work to be done,” Hannah Stone, Madison athletic trainer, said. “A great trait with Gen Z is that they are way more open with their mental health than the previous generations. There is no shame in seeking help when you need it.”

(If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE)