Written by Beth Rush


Sports is a mental game as much as it is a physical one. While your training is critical, you need a motivated and healthy mindset before entering competitions. The struggles of being an athlete can be overbearing, but there are ways to overcome them.

How do women in sports overcome these challenges and achieve their goals? They find motivation and do whatever it takes. Here’s what athletes say about mental health and staying on top of their game.

How does mental health impact your game?

The past few years have seen extraordinary conversations about sports and mental health. Simone Biles and Coco Gauff are recent examples of prominent athletes speaking openly about their struggles.

Biles was a four-time gold medalist heading into the 2020 Summer Olympics. The star gymnast was on her way to more accolades until she encountered the twisties or yips. This phenomenon occurs when an athlete has a neurological condition affecting particular muscles.

Biles ultimately withdrew from individual competitions before returning to the balance beam for the team routine. After a two-year break, she returned to competitions and won four gold medals at the 2023 World Championships in Belgium. Biles has demonstrated even the best athletes can have mental struggles despite the praise and accolades.

Gauff is another young star in women’s sports, claiming her first major title at the 2022 French Open. However, her short career hasn’t been without struggles. In 2020, Gauff discussed her mental health struggles and detailed her battle with depression. The Georgia native said she struggled with expectations from others and emphasized playing for herself.

When is failure advantageous?

The objective of sports is to win a championship, whether an individual trophy or a team title. Professional competitions are challenging — especially in team sports — because most athletes lose more than they win.

Consider Candace Parker, who recently retired from the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) after 19 seasons. While her three titles are stellar, the other 16 seasons provided failure and something to learn from.

“Essentially, I believe that failure is the biggest gift we have — it strips us of ego and allows us to really know ourselves and gives us a clean slate to go after or do what we really believe,” says Amanda Russell, executive producer and a former elite runner at Running For Their Lives.

Failure challenges your mental health but can benefit your game. This opportunity lets you learn from your mistakes and become a better athlete. Russell says knowing when to push and rest is critical for your journey.

“For every challenge or failure encountered, there is an invitation for growth,” she says. “But growth isn’t just about pushing your body to its limits — sometimes, the bravest and most crucial part of your journey is learning to listen to your body and knowing when to rest.”

Russell says knowing when to shift gears is critical for your resolve. Balancing rest and pushing your body strengthens your fortitude.

“Embracing this wisdom and permitting yourself to step back when needed is a true testament to your mental strength and resilience,” she says. “In the end, it’s not about how hard you can push yourself in the short term, but about how well you can navigate the delicate balance between effort and recovery in the long run.”

What happens when your athletic career is over?

The mental health struggles can continue once you leave the game. You may have played a sport since childhood, with practice and games occupying much of your young adult life.

However, age catches up with you and eventually ends your career. How do you cope with this transition? Some female athletes endure grueling mental health challenges.

“I am a former Division 1 women’s basketball player and the author of ‘The Mental State of Sport,’” says Zedralyn Butler, founder and owner of The Ball Code and an author. “One chapter focuses on transitioning out of sports, which is ultimately the toughest mental health challenge, especially for most who have played their sport the majority of their life.”

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) says 35% of elite athletes endure depression, anxiety, eating or disordered eating. Butler says depression stands out because of its impact on athletes.

“In addition, depression is spoken about in every conversation I’ve had in regards to the topic,” she says.

Depression can present itself in numerous ways. Star athletes can get caught up with expectations or become saddened over an injury.

Alternatively, you may deal with issues outside of sports. For example, you may lose a family member or have financial problems. College students may struggle with academics or isolation because of their demanding schedules. What do these factors mean for college athletes?

Research shows 53.3% of student-athletes binge drink compared to 41.2% of non-athletes. Why do these students drink more than their peers? If you’re a college athlete, you may use it to cope with mental health conditions or physical pain. Other reasons could include social pressures, calming nerves or celebrating a win.

How can pain help your mental game?

When you push yourself, you open yourself to pain. How much of it is mental compared to the physical aspect? Athletes have tremendous strength and resolve to push themselves to championship-level heights.

You may try to avoid pain, but it can help you understand yourself and the world around you. Pain shouldn’t stop you — instead, it should be motivation for the rewards to come.

“The most important thing is to keep in mind constantly that your brain and body always have at least 10% more to give than you think it can,” says Chandler Self, the founder of Self Care Psychiatry and a former Division I athlete.

Training for competitions is a demanding experience. Your routine may require waking up early and sacrificing social time with your friends. However, you’ll reap benefits in the long run with your results.

“Training for sports is not easy, but the reward is huge — similar to childbirth,” Self says. “Women are very good at delayed gratification and can use this strength to achieve goals.”

However, although pushing the physical body is necessary, especially in a competitive environment, positivity is sometimes the driving force of success. According to Krissy Webb, Co-founder and Executive Director of Student ACES, “What I have found in my years of coaching, mentoring and parenting is that young women thrive in positive environments. I have seen so many adults screaming at athletes which is followed by complete shutdown. We all know what this looks like. Shoulders come down, head down, complete loss of confidence, wet eyes and disappointment in themselves. As coaches, mentors and role models we have a split second to decide how we react in situations and sometimes that makes or breaks a young woman.”

“I’m not saying you can’t be honest and tough at a competitive level I’m saying expectations need to be set in a positive culture where female student athletes can thrive!” she says. “I am the Executive Director of Student ACES whose mission is to create CHAMPIONS. We create CHAMPIONS through our innovative programs for high school student-athletes focused on character and leadership. The word Champions is an acronym for our Core Values: Honor Your Word, Aspire to Greatness, Maintain Courage, Possess a Work Ethic Second to None, Inspire Others, Own a Winning Attitude, Never Settle, and Sacrifice for Self and Team.

Can your experience help others in their mental game?

If you have struggles, you likely aren’t alone. Others experience mental health struggles, physical pain and heartbreak like you have in your career. Your battles and triumphs could be a pillar for the next generation to use and understand themselves. Resonating with stories makes you feel more ready to tackle whatever challenges are ahead.

Imagine your doctor diagnoses you with a rare disease. How do you respond to the news? Medical professionals may say your athletic career is ending, but it doesn’t have to be the last day.

“I am an athlete, and although my body is changing from a brain tumor and a rare diagnosis, my mindset has not,” says Risa August, owner, author, speaker, patient advocate and gestalt practitioner at Feather and Sage Coaching. “I share about how I am no longer the person I was and my resistance to embracing who I am moving forward.”

While you need to care for your body, the diagnosis could motivate you to tackle more remarkable accomplishments than your previous ones.

“After being told I ‘shouldn’t,’ I decided to take to my road bike and the Pacific Coast Highway and ride the 1,845 miles from Canada to Mexico,” August says. “I realized this journey was bigger than me, and I became a patient advocate for those with these ‘rare’ tumors, like mine.”

How can you spread awareness and motivate others?

Disease awareness helps athletes who want to stay in the game and maintain a sharp mental focus. Early detection saves lives and is effective at treating the most prominent diseases. For example, health experts say nearly all women survive breast cancer if they receive a diagnosis in the earliest stage.

Sometimes, adversity creates incredible stories of physical and mental resolve. Wilma Rudolph is an excellent example because she had polio during her childhood. Despite the circumstances, she became a decorated Olympic athlete with three gold medals and an inspiration to people with disabilities. Athletes shine when they use their platform to inspire others with similar struggles.

“My goal is to save lives and inspire others, to be a better person every day, and to live more fully and more authentically,” August says. “The adversity I have been facing has opened me up so completely that I am rebuilding this second (new) life and living more fully for what feels like the very first time…I’m living unleashed.”

The Mental Game Within Sports

Physical competition is what you see on the field or the court. However, the mental game challenges the athletes just as much. How can you endure these less visible struggles? Grit, self-care, community and constant learning have helped female athletes break through and inspire others.