Female boxers and mental health

A response to an August article.

Derek Larkin and colleagues (‘When winners need help’, August 2017) highlight a vital yet discounted issue within sport psychology: although the media portray athletes as living luxurious, carefree lives, they purposely fail to cover their struggles.

In agreement with the authors, I believe ‘sport psychologists should be considering the environmental and social contexts in which elite athletes operate in’. However, researchers typically neglect the exploration of gender-related pressures experienced by athletes. For example, there’s little research examining female participation in combat sports (e.g. boxing). Derek and colleagues suggest that elite athletes need to ‘stay physically healthy’ and ‘remain injury-free’; but as well as these pressures, female boxers are more predisposed to societal gender stereotyping pressures, sexualisation and discrimination in comparison to male boxers. Drawing on my own career as a female amateur boxer, I’ve experienced numerous negative encounters due to my gender; seemingly my involvement in boxing appears to run counterintuitive to traditionally accepted societal norms.

Away from the pressures of training and competitions, boxers are more susceptible to severe head injuries. According to research, athletes who have suffered from at least three concussions have triple the risk of being diagnosed with clinical depression compared with those who had no concussion. It is unsurprising that boxers have emerged as a group of concern with regard to mental health. The British Boxing Board of Control organised a seminar encouraging licence-holders to discuss and learn about mental health illnesses, yet nobody attended.

Boxers receive little guidance about mental health within their sporting careers. I consider myself fortunate to have studied sport psychology and gained valuable knowledge about various coping strategies; unfortunately the same cannot be said for other female boxers, some encountering sporting and societal pressures as early as adolescent. Sport scientists should explicitly explore personalised interventions to help increase female boxers’ mental health literacy, in addition to assisting amateur and professional boxing governing bodies in investing ways to support female boxers throughout their careers.

Shakiba Moghadam MBPsS

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