This has led to mental breakdowns for some in major competitions such as the FIFA World Cup, the Olympic Games, and even in continental and regional championships. South African professional football club structures are not immune.
It is against this background that Mamelodi Sundowns’ first team coach, Steve Komphela has called on local athletes, including football players, to eradicate the stigma by admitting to their mental health needs. Komphela cited the examples of tennis icons Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, who both suffer from depression, among the top international stars who have shared their mental health struggles with the public. Others are American multiple Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, who battled severe anxiety and depression, as well as former NFL player Ricky Williams who was diagnosed with social anxiety.
The mental health struggles among sportspeople gained traction during the Tokyo Olympics when decorated American gymnast, Simone Biles, also opened up about suffering from anxiety in the middle of competition at the multi-coded event in Japan last year.
“Now, what stops our athletes from doing the same?” asks Komphela.
“These [the aforementioned] are top athletes and the same should reflect in South Africa. There’s this phenomenon of competition and the one thing about success in sports is that the very same success could be causing trauma. As such, we need to have mental and emotional interventions.”
Komphela is worried that there’s a finding that reveals that in South Africa, there are fewer athletes, including football players, that have publicly spoken about their mental health issues. Nonetheless, he highlighted the importance of players to keep their mental health in check.
“Every athlete, just like everyone else in society, has problems. And those problems need solutions. There’s no way in the environment we find ourselves where there is high performance, extreme pressure and you don’t have an outlet to voice your mental health challenges”.
“The catch is: you need to understand exactly where the problem lies if you want to find a cure or a solution for such.”
Komphela advised that an individual can be their own “best doctor”, but there is still a need for one to seek counsel from experts.
Apart from the environment at the clubs, Komphela admitted that representing the national teams also comes with added pressure.
He cited his personal experience following his maiden call-up to Bafana Bafana in 1992, when he was “under scrutiny from central defenders from [local leagues] 15 other clubs”, who were watching his every move – and crucially if he’d lose his footing.
“Coaches are not psychologists, but you need to get closer to understanding the state of emotions and not the state of the mind only. We need to understand that we are dealing with human beings. The pressure that is put on you as a coach should not be transferred to the player.”
If there was a way to win the mental health battle, Komphela looked no further than the modern-day society and the need to induct sportspeople before they embark on their career journey.
“One of the most challenging things in the world we are living in today is the overload of information, and misinformation. There is also an overload of instant criticism from interested parties in whatever sport these beautiful athletes are engaged in.”
“Sometimes these athletes just get into sport without understanding the consequences, intricacies, and the realities – the pros and cons of their trade. This has created serious and tremendous mental challenge for them.”
Komphela elaborated on observing how most of the players lacked induction once they joined the professional ranks.
“Most of them were not introduced to professional sport properly. They were not told in advance that there’s going to be challenges like injuries, overtraining, competition within the squad, performance pressure, family issues to deal with while in the profession, finances and travelling.“
“And above all these, these athletes are not told that when they start at 20, they’ll probably retire at 30. That process of retirement is a hell of stress to these guys, and some cannot handle it.” As a parting shot, Komphela advised elite sportspeople to accept the reality that only a chosen few will make it to the top.