A Phenomenological Examination Of Depression In
Female Collegiate Athletes
Alyson L. Jones, Ted M. Butryn, David M. Furst, and Tamar Z. Semerjian
San José State University
Despite the well-known mental health benefits of exercise, collegiate athletes may be at an increased risk of depression due to the number of stressors they face(Gill, 2008; Yang et al., 2007), and this risk may be even greater for female athletes (Donohue et al., 2004; Storch, Storch, Killikany, & Roberti, 2005). It has been suggested that a greater understanding of personal experiences would be helpful in increasing awareness and improving treatment. Therefore, the purpose of the current study was to explore the lived experience of depression in female collegiate athletes. In-depth, unstructured interviews were conducted with 10 current and former female collegiate athletes. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using phenomenological research methods (Dale, 1996, 2000). Thematic analysis revealed one ground (the role of sport) and four general categories (weariness, self-doubt, out of control, and nowhere to go). Practical implications and recommendations are made for athletes and coaches.
Research investigating the relationship between sport participation and mental health has led to conflicting results (Proctor & Boan-Lenzo, 2010; Storch et al., 2005; Wyshak, 2001). A number of studies have suggested that participation in sport is associated with psychological benefits and that it acts as a buffer against various sources of stress (Proctor & Boan-Lenzo, 2010). The Profile of Mood States (POMS), developed for use in counseling and psychotherapy as a means of measuring the current mood of patients, has often been employed in studies measuring athletes’ emotional states (Snow & LeUnes, 1994). Through this research, the “iceberg” profile was identified, in which athletes displayed high levels of vigor alongside low levels of anger, depression, tension, fatigue, and confusion (Morgan, 1980; Morgan & Pollock, 1977; Puffer & McShane, 1992;Terry, 1995). Overall, research utilizing the POMS in sport appears to point to positive mental health among athletes, including decreased levels of depression, compared to other populations (Terry, 1995).
Contrary to these findings, a significant body of research has pointed to mental health detriments associated with sport participation, particularly in the collegiate athletic population (Gill, 2008; Storch et al., 2005). Theories posited to explain these research findings hinge on the assertion that the collegiate athlete is exposed to an increased number of stressors, including time demands, decreased autonomy, pressures of meeting expectations and pleasing those around them, negotiating relationships, increased competition, retirement from sport after graduation, and performance anxiety (Proctor & Boan-Lenzo, 2010; Storch et al., 2005; Yang et al., 2007). In addition, student-athletes are expected to meet the demands of being a student as well (Storch et al., 2005; Yang et al., 2007). Balancing different identity roles can be a significant challenge for the collegiate athlete, and role conflict or interference has been found to negatively affect mental health (Killeya-Jones, 2005; Settles, Sellers, & Damas, 2002). Finally, college is a time often characterized by transition, which can add additional stress to the lives of student-athletes (Storch et al., 2005; Yang et al., 2007).
A wide range of potential psychiatric disorders may present within the collegiate athletic population as a result of these varied and significant stressors, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, disordered eating, and substance abuse (Broshek & Freeman, 2005; Puffer & McShane, 1992). In the general population, depression is the most common mental health issue. Nicknamed the “common cold” of psychiatric disorders, nearly one in six people will experience depression in their lifetime (Cogan, 2000; Mentink, 2001). The college-aged population may experience depression at even higher levels than the general population. According to recent research, 18.9% of college students reported feeling depressed within the past 12 months (American College Health Association [ACHA], 2008). These numbers appear to be on the rise during recent years, with colleges and universities reporting growing numbers of reports of depression and suicidal ideations and intentions at their mental health facilities (Sisk, 2006). In fact, suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death among college students with 12.5 deaths per 100,000 young people between the ages of 20 and 24 (National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH], 2009a; Sisk, 2006).
A significant gender difference exists in the prevalence of depression, with women outnumbering men by nearly a 2:1 ratio (NIMH, 2009b). Previous studies have reported a greater incidence of depression among female collegiate athletes compared to males (Donohue et al., 2004; Storch et al., 2005; Yang et al., 2007).
Various theories have been proposed to explain the reported gender difference in the prevalence of depression. Typically these theories have pointed to potential hormonal or cognitive differences (LaFrance & Stoppard, 2006). Gender role socialization, or an increased willingness to report symptoms and seek help, have also been suggested as possible reasons for gender differences (Yang et al., 2007). Additional theories specific to the collegiate athletic population include exposure to more stressors than male athletes, greater internalization of stress and negative feedback, or less involvement in non-sport social activities (Storch et al., 2005). It is clear that female collegiate athletes are at significant risk of experiencing depression, and this can lead to potentially harmful outcomes.
The experience of depressive symptoms in the collegiate athletic population should be of great concern for a number of reasons. First, the typical age of onset for depression is the mid-twenties, making depression a significant risk for this group (Broshek & Freeman, 2005). Second, collegiate athletes face a unique set of challenges that place them at an increased risk for mental health disorders such as depression and maladaptive coping behaviors like alcohol abuse (Ford, 2007; Gill, 2008; Miller, Miller, Verhegge, Linville, & Pumariega, 2002). Third, an individual suffering from depression is unlikely to be functioning at optimal levels, and for an athlete that could mean impaired sport performance (Cogan, 2000). Finally, the health, safety, and happiness of individuals suffering from depression rely on recognition and proper care.
Depression is a significant risk factor for suicidal ideations and attempts, highlighting the critical importance of appropriate attention and intervention (ACHA, 2008; NIMH, 2009b, Sisk, 2006). This need may be especially pressing in collegiate sport because college students, and athletes in particular, underutilize mental health support resources available to them, leaving them susceptible to potentially harmful outcomes (Andersen, Denson, Brewer, & Van Raalte, 1994; Cogan, 2000; Glick & Horsfall, 2005; Mentink, 2001; Sisk, 2006; Watson, 2005; Yang et al., 2007). Understanding the symptoms, prevalence, and associated risk factors of mental illness is vital in ensuring proper attention and care (Andersen et al., 1994; Glick & Horsfall, 2005). Obtaining an in-depth understanding of the experience of depression from the point of view of the athlete can also provide valuable assistance in treating this at-risk population.
As previously discussed, the majority of research investigating the relationship between mental health and sport participation has relied heavily on quantitative measurements. Qualitative research, however, could provide another valuable means of understanding the relationship between depression and sport participation.Indeed, existential phenomenology has been suggested as a potent means of exploration due to its ability to investigate complex experiences from a first-person perspective and subjectively define what is meaningful within those experiences (Allen-Collinson, 2009; Bain, 1995; Dale, 1996; Fahlberg, Fahlberg, & Gates, 1992; Kerry & Armour, 2000; Pollio, Henley, & Thompson, 1997; Ryba, 2007; Solomon, 1972; Sorenson, Czech, Gonzalez, Klein, & Lachowetz, 2009; Spillman, 2006; Valle, King, & Halling, 1989). The melding of the philosophical underpinnings of existentialism and phenomenologynamely, the interest in human experience as it exists in the worldwith qualitative research methods allows for a richness of results and a depth of understanding greater than what could be obtained through other modes of inquiry (Allen-Collinson, 2009; Dale, 1996; Giorgi, 2002; Heidegger, 1962; Kerry & Armour, 2000).
In recent years, there has been an increased use of existential phenomenology within sport psychology research, exploring a wide variety of topics. Also, existential phenomenological research studies in psychology have investigatedthe experiences of depression among various demographic groups.Farmer (2002) explored adolescents’ experiences of depression with five depressed adolescents aged 13 to 17, and concluded that the essential structures of their experiences were anger and fatigue. Spillman (2006) explored men’s experiences of depression with 10 participants, ranging in age from 30 to 61, who had been diagnosed with depression and were currently receiving psychotherapy. Central to their experiences was feeling out of control, which represented the participants’ feelings of unpredictability and powerlessness with regard to their depression. The lack of qualitative research exploring the depression experiences of women, however, leaves researchers and practitioners “wandering in the dark” (Schreiber, 2001, p. 86), demonstrating a need for more research in this area.
In order to explore the experience of depression in sport, Mentink (2001) utilized a case study approach with three collegiate athletes (two male, one female). Mentink was particularly interested in how the athletes used the resources available to them to cope with depression. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in addition to two surveys to assess depressive symptoms. Additionally, a parent or coach of each athlete was interviewed. Results revealed a disconnect between the participants’ experiences of depression and what their coach or parent perceived. In addition, the participants were reluctant to come forward with their mental health struggles, demonstrating a clear need for a better understanding of the symptoms of depression in this population.
Leno (2007) conducted an existential phenomenological investigation of African American male athletes’ experiences of depression. Ten collegiate and professional basketball and football players were interviewed using open-ended questions. Similar to Mentink’s (2001) findings, Leno suggested that the experiences of an athlete may differ significantly from the perceptions held by others and may be characterized by a balancing of the positive aspects of an athletic career with pressure and struggles with performance. Leno suggested that more qualitative research is necessary in order to increase knowledge and debunk misconceptions and stereotypes regarding depression. Therefore, the purpose of the current study was to explore the lived experiences of depression in female collegiate athletes from an existential phenomenological perspective.
The purpose of phenomenological research is to describe the fundamental structure of an experience, not the statistical characteristics of the individuals in the group under study. Therefore, participants are not chosen randomly in order to achieve statistical generalization, but are instead purposefully selected due to their experience with a given phenomenon (Czech et al., 2004; Dale, 1996, 2000). Ideally, these participants are able to richly describe their experiences, providing varying accounts of a particular phenomenon that when taken as a whole will create an understanding of the lived experience under investigation (Polkinghorne, 1989; Ryba, 2007).
Participants were recruited through local Division I collegiate athletic programs. Criteria for inclusion in the current study were: (a) being a current or former female collegiate athlete, and (b) self-identifying as having experienced depression (Leno, 2007; Mentink, 2001). Ten current and former female collegiate athletes participated in the study. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 27 years. Participants included athletes from five sports: water polo (4), swimming (3), basketball (1), lacrosse (1), and gymnastics (1). See Table 1 for profiles of the participants.
Phenomenological interviews are open-ended, unstructured, and designed to create a conversation or discourse investigating the experience of interest (Czech et al., 2004; Johnson, 1998; Leno, 2007; Polkinghorne, 1989; Ryba, 2007; Sorenson et al., 2009). The role of the researcher is to encourage self-reflection by the participant and to seek clarification when necessary (Czech et al., 2004; Johnson, 1998; Polkinghorne, 1989).
Prior to conducting participant interviews, the researcher took part in a bracketing interview in order to better understand her preconceived notions regarding the current topic of study (Dale, 1996; Garland, 2005). While it is impossible to completely discard researcher assumptions, the awareness of those assumptions gained through the bracketing interview allowed for the minimization of bias (Allen-Collinson, 2009; Dale, 1996; Krane, Andersen, & Strean, 1997). Next, a pilot interview was conducted with an athlete who met the criteria necessary for the current study. The interview was an opportunity for the researcher to practice appropriate phenomenological interview techniques (Dale, 1996). The pilot interview also raised additional dimensions of interest that were not identified during the self-reflective bracketing interview (Polkinghorne, 1989), and the interviewee gave feedback regarding the interview.
After receiving university IRB approval, interviews were arranged at times convenient for the participants. Nine interviews were conducted in person, and one interview was conducted via web-cam using the online phone service Skype. Each participant was fully informed about the focus of the study and signed an Informed Consent Form at the time of the interview. The interviews began with an open-ended prompt designed to guide the direction of the interview: “Tell me about your experience of depression during your time as an athlete.” If the participant found it difficult to know where to begin, they were asked to first describe their sport background. This approach often helped the participants feel comfortable before delving into subjects that were quite personal and perhaps more difficult to articulate. Follow-up questions were asked based on how the participant responded and sought to clarify the participant’s responses, such as “Could you tell me more about that?” or “What was that like for you?”
The format of the interview was circular instead of linear, resembling a natural conversation, and the dialogue was set primarily by the participant (Dale, 1996; Polkinghorne, 1989). The interviews lasted as long as the participants needed in order to cover the topics they felt were relevant, and ranged from 35 minutes to just over 90 minutes. Each interview was transcribed verbatim and all names and other identifying information were changed or removed in order to protect the participants’ privacy. Transcripts were returned to the participants in order to be checked for errors, omissions, or corrections.
Data analysis involved the creation of multiple levels of data themes. First, meaning units were identified in the transcripts by locating key words or phrases (Garland, 2005; Gratton & Jones, 2004; Sorenson et al., 2009). Next, the meaning units were grouped based on similarities into themes (Côté, Salmela, Baria, & Russell, 1993; Czech et al., 2004; Dale, 1996; Gratton & Jones, 2004). The themes were then merged again into general categories. This final level of analysis represents the fundamental structure of the data(Dale, 1996; Gratton & Jones, 2004).
The hermeneutic circle was employed during the process of thematic analysis. This procedure involves the continuous interpretation of one piece of data, or interview transcript, in relation to the whole of the data (Dale, 1996; Pollio et al., 1997). By continually going back over earlier interviews in relation to later ones, and vice versa, the researcher is able to recognize how each one resembles others, and eventually arrive at themes and general categories that are representative of the data (Dale, 1996; Pollio et al., 1997).
Establishing Academic Rigor
A number of steps were taken in the interest of establishing academic rigor: the aforementioned bracketing and pilot interviews; a reflexive journal detailing decisions made in relation to methods used and the reasons for those decisions (Côté et al., 1993; Dale, 1996); peer review, in which another researcher not involved with the study read and raised questions about the interview transcripts and analysis; first-person, thick description through the use of direct quotes when reporting the participants’ experiences (Allen-Collinson, 2009; Dale, 1996; Krane et al., 1997; Sparkes, 1998; Strean, 1998); and member checking, in which the interview transcripts were returned to the respective participants in an effort to allow the participants to check for accuracy (Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Dale, 1996; Polkinghorne, 1989).
Analysis of the 10 interview transcripts revealed one ground, the role of sport, and four general categories that embodied the participants’ experiences of depression:weariness, self-doubt, out of control, and nowhere to go (see Table 2). The following section describes the ground and the four general categories.
The Role of Sport
No one aspect of human experience exists without connection to the experience as a whole. When discussing a specific aspect of first-person experience (figure), it must be considered as it relates to the whole of the experience (ground). This relationship is referred to as the “figure/ground structure of experience,” in which the ground serves as a backdrop for understanding figural themes, providing them with necessary context (Pollio et al., 1997, p. 13). The role of sport is the ground in the current study and represents the psychological, emotional, temporal, and physical commitment the athletes have made to sport as a major part of their lives.
The participants discussed different aspects of the role of sport in their lives, the most prominent of which was an enjoyment of sport. As Dee explained, “I enjoy swimming. I enjoy racing. I enjoy being with my teammates, and that’s really what keeps me together.”
Not surprisingly, being an athlete had become a major part of the participants’ identity. As Jodi stated, “Maybe it’s just that it’s always been my thing. I’ve always been an athlete, and I’ve always felt really great about working really hard.” Heidi also discussed her relationship to sport:
I guess [sport] being part of my identity has overall been a good thing. I mean, obviously I love the sport. I’ve taken it all the way through college; it’s taken me all the way through college [laughs]. And it is my life; swimming is my life.
Participants discussed the significant time commitment required to be a collegiate athlete. For Katy, the time commitment to sport left her wondering what to do when she had time to herself:
When you play a sport at such a high level, it’s like all you do. So all I basically do is I go to school, I sleep, I eat, and I play water polo…. Since you do it so much in the year, without it is like an emptiness… you don’t know what to do with all that time.
Sport was seen as an escape from negative events in the participants’ lives. They explained that sport helped them to feel relaxed and happy when they were otherwise stressed or upset, often referring to sport as an “outlet.” In the following passage, Alisha explained how basketball helped her feel better when she was angry or upset:
When I was younger, if my brothers and sisters were arguing, or my mom was arguing with my dad, or I got in trouble… I’d just grab the basketball and go outside and start shooting. And it was like I could just forget about it in that moment. It was like my coping mechanism. And I know maybe it sounds stupid, but some people eat when they’re depressed; I play basketball.
In short, sport contributed greatly to the participants’ views of themselves, their social relationships, their college lives, and their futures.However, sport often took on a new and complex role as the source of, or reprieve from, depression. Sometimes, it was perceived as both. The following sections detail the difficult experience of depression for these participants. Each aspect of their experience was influenced heavily by the ground of the role of sport in their lives.
Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and mental and emotional exhaustion permeated many areas of the participants’ lives and all related to the general category of weariness.Fiveof the participants discussed feeling sad, upset, or unhappy during their experience of depression. As Erin described, she remembered the sadness as being pervasive:
I was sad all the time. And I don’t know; it was just kind of routine. I’d get up and go to school, but I wouldn’t really talk much. And when I got home, I’d just listen to sad music.
Three participants remembered their desire to do not much more than stay in bed and sleep when they were depressed, and seven participants discussed crying as part of their experience. Being upset to the point of “breaking down” was an experience described by two of the participants in this study. As Emily recalled, “I was like water works for 3 hours, I couldn’t even get a word out. It was just a complete breakdown; crying, lots of tears.” Pervasive and sometimes overwhelming feelings of sadness were ongoing during participants’ experiences of depression.
Six participants recalled struggling with feelings of loneliness and homesickness. For some of them, it was due to being away from family and friends for the first time. Due to the obligations of being a collegiate athlete, participants often found that they were unable to travel home at times when their non-athlete friends could. These restrictions exacerbated their feelings of loneliness. Emily described her experience:
I don’t think I ever knew it would be so hard to be so far from my friends and family. Not even that they were far, but that they were so far that I couldn’t even drive six hours or so to see them, which I would have done. But I couldn’t. I had nobody. It was a really isolating feeling.
Three participants explained feeling lonely because an event had caused their teammates to exclude them. For Heidi, a conflict with teammates led to feelings of ostracism and loneliness when they excluded her from their social circle:
They were like, “You messed up; we don’t want you here.” And it was really hard, because this was like my family; these were like my older sisters. So that was very, very depressing.
Sport placed many demands on their time, as discussed in the ground, which led four participants to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Juggling many obligations or worries while also struggling with depression can lead to a feeling of being unable to deal with it all. Heather recalled how she felt overwhelmed and less capable during her experience of depression:
When I feel overwhelmed, it’s like emotionally overwhelmed. If something’s bad, I think it’s 10 times worse than it is, and then I just get really sad about it. Normally I’d be like, “Oh, that sucks.” But [instead] it was like, “Oh my god, the world’s going to end. I can’t deal with this.”
Heather’s depression led her to overestimate the size of the problems she faced while also underestimating her ability to meet them. She discussed how being overwhelmed led her to feel depleted and mentally drained:
It was so hard. It took all my mental energy to be positive through my injury. Pull myself through, start playing, be cool with my teammates, and then [getting injured] again, and rehabbing through that. My brain was just tired…. I just felt like I had tapped out my mental bank.
This general category is comprised of participants’ experiences of questioning and criticizing themselves and their athletic abilities during their struggles with depression and other challenges. Six participants discussed doubting themselves when faced with poor performance or a lack of expected improvement. Dee struggled with self-doubt during a plateau in her performance when she was training but not improving. She remembered asking herself, “If my competitors are doing better than me and they’ve been swimming just as long as me, then what is wrong with me?” Self-doubt about her athletic abilities caused Dee to question other aspects of her life as well: “I think the hardest part about when I was plateauing, the most confusing part was, ‘Ok, if I’m not good at this, then what am I good at?’” Sport had long seemed like solid ground for the participants. Consequently, being faced with new questions about their performance or their place within sport caused significant distress.
Four participants described feelings of perfectionism and heightened self-criticism when they believed they fell short of their goals. Katy described having extremely high expectations for her performance, and Dee described feelings of worthlessness: “I didn’t really feel like I was worth anything anymore. I didn’t feel like my hard work did anything for me.” Emily admitted: “You almost feel like a part of you is a failure, a little bit.”
Sport had always been a source of confidence and enjoyment, but when faced with unexpected plateaus or periods of poor performance, the participants suddenly felt self-doubt creeping in. Questions regarding their athletic abilities were exacerbated by perfectionism and harsh criticism of their performance, spiraling until their sport foundation had been truly shaken.
Out of Control
Feeling out of control was a common experience for eight of the participants. It took many forms and appeared in narratives about being unwillingly restricted from sport participation, reacting in anger towards themselves and others, and feeling helpless to regain control of their athletic fate.
Sport participation was restricted for six participants because of injury, rehabilitation, physical pain, or discipline for academic or extracurricular issues. This left participants feeling as if they had lost an important aspect of their lives and they lacked the control to get it back. They felt as if external and uncontrollable sources had taken sport away from them, and they had no say in the decision.
A salient aspect of this category was the experience of somebody else telling them they could not participate. “When they said I couldn’t even go [play], I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is my life, and they’re taking it away,’” Heidi explained. Alisha echoed feelings of her life being controlled by external sources when she struggled with school officials over her athletic eligibility: “I mean, this is my life. I even told them that; I was like, ‘This is my life.’”
Injuries, especially career-ending injuries, have been found to lead to feelings of identity loss and depression for athletes, as discussed by Leno (2007) and others. In the current study, injuries that restricted sport participation contributed to feeling out of control. When Heather could not play water polo due to an injury, she felt as though she was blocked from the one thing that would ease her depression:
I just needed to get back to water polo for my sanity. That’s what I felt would solve everything…. I felt like I could go back to water polo and it would all be erased and I would be happy and cool again.
Four participants described feeling angry as a major part of their experiences. Often their anger was directed at something over which they had no control. Other times their anger was a response to a lack of control over their situation; an experience described by many participants. If attempts to reclaim control were unsuccessful, they felt powerless and helpless as a result. An example of this experience was provided by Alisha, who had struggled with an accumulation of negative and unpredictable setbacksmultiple injuries, conflict with coaches, and disagreement over her eligibilitythat left her feeling out of control of her situation. In the following passage she discussed feeling powerless to clear up the eligibility disagreement:
I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s out of my hands really, as far as I see it. [Researcher: What’s that like, to feel like it’s out of your hands?] Yeah, it’s out of my control, and it is very frustrating. I mean, I’ve done everything I can do about it, and I’ve tried and tried and tried…. I’m like getting emotional talking about it, it’s just so wrong. It is wrong…. I just don’t understand.
The experience of being out of control represented participants’ struggles with being restricted from playing sport and feelings of anger, powerlessness, and helplessness when their attempts at control were unsuccessful. Another way participants attempted to regain control in the face of depression and other sport-related challenges was to re-evaluate their commitment to sport entirely.
Nowhere to Go
Depression and frustration with sport led participants to consider leaving sport in order to alleviate their pain. Yet, they expressed being unwilling to give up sport because it was such a big part of their lives and identity, and had served as an emotional outlet during times of stress. For some, sport was seen as all they had going for them and struggled to imagine what they would do instead of sport. Thus, they had nowhere to go. Even though sport created problems, they could not imagine their lives without it. This general category discusses how participants balanced these conflicting thoughts and desires regarding their athletic future.
Five participants recounted times in which they nearlyquit sport as a way out of their struggle with depression. While vacillating over the idea of quitting sport, participants often asked themselves, somewhat rhetorically, what their reasons were for continuing to play. They wondered what the point of getting up early for practice was when they were not seeing any improvement in their performance, or if their injury rehabilitation was worth the pain and effort it required. Most importantly, they wondered why they were continuing to play when they were no longer enjoying it, as Katy described in the following passage:
I’d be like, “I’m quitting; I’m not doing this anymore”…. But of course the next year I’d go back. It happened every year; every week I was like, “I’m not doing this.” It was like, “Why am I doing this? I’m not having any fun, I’m not getting any better, and I’m not even that good, where am I going to go?”
No longer finding enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities, or meaning in previously valued activities, are hallmark signs of depression. Heather felt a waning enjoyment of sport as she neared the end of college, yet was unable to move on to the next phase of her life:
At that point, I felt trapped with water polo. [Researcher: So what was that feeling like, being trapped?]I just realized that, you know, I did what I wanted to do with water polo; I was done. Yeah, I liked playing, I liked to train, but I just didn’t want to do it anymore. And I wasn’t sad about it, I was just sad that I would go to practice and I would have feelings that I didn’t want to be there, and I’d never really experienced that before. I didn’t want to be at practice at six in the morning… it was like, “I have a big paper to write; I just want to sleep; I don’t want to do this; I want to go out to the bars with my friends,” you know, but I couldn’t. All my other friends who were done playing had lives, and I still couldn’t. I felt like I didn’t have a life.
Because quitting sport completely was not seen as a viable option, eight participants described efforts to try to separate themselves from the issue they saw as the source of their depression. Physical distance was placed between them and their team. Mental distance was created by bottling up their emotions, ignoring the problem, or taking drugs. They felt they could avoid pain and frustration by using these strategies to sidestep the problems they faced. Temporary and noncommittal forms of distance from sport were desirable because they could experience independence without having to give up sport completely, something they felt they could never do. In fact, despite struggling with depression and other significant issues that were affecting their enjoyment of sport, participants described feeling as though they could not give up on their commitment to sport.
For example, one reason that participants gave for being unwilling to quit was how much they had already committed to their athletics. Dee discussed why she rejected the thought of giving up on swimming after a long period of frustration over her performance:
Swimming was such a big part of me; I couldn’t just let it go…. I did not want to lose what I already had. Because it was such a big part of my life, I didn’t want to lose all of it.
A conviction that they “finish things” or “get through things” was mentioned by a number of participants as a reason they would not give up on sport despite struggles they were facing. Compounding that commitment for some was the belief that sport was the best thing they had going. Struggling with sport, as many of the participants were, left them in an uncomfortable predicament. Katy explained this difficult situation:
If you hate water polo, then you’re like, “Well, my life’s over. What am I going to do? This is all I have. If I quit water polo, I don’t have my scholarship. If I quit water polo, what else am I going to do?”…. It’s just all you have.
Katy’s quote articulated the worries a number of participants had when considering the ramifications of no longer having sport in their lives. They had difficulty imagining what they would do, who they would be, and what their lives would be like without sport. Therefore, no matter the struggles they faced, giving up sport was not an option. Of course, as collegiate athletes, they will soon reach the end of their collegiate athletic career, whether they are ready for it or not. In Jodi’s interview, she discussed the dread she felt about her upcoming retirement from sport:
I went through a pretty severe depression, just thinking about… life after sports, you know. And it took a while for me to realize that it’s not like my life is going to be over, but it still really makes me scared.
The experience of having nowhere to go represents the way participants were trapped between the positive and negative aspects of sport. Though they struggled with depression due to plateaus in sport performance, significant injuries, declining enjoyment in sport, tense team dynamics and other issues, they were so committed to sport and highly identified as athletes that leaving sport behind was never truly an option. Instead, the participants often hedged by finding temporary ways to create distance from sport in order to try to ameliorate their depression.
This study revealed that the sources of the participants’ depression were varied;yet their experiences were characterized by keysimilarities. These similarities were the focus of the results, but it is important to note that each participant’s experience consisted of a unique configuration of the general categories. For each individual, certain general categories were more or less salient than others, reflecting their own personal experience. Nevertheless, the results identified represent essential themes in the experiences described by the participants.
The results from this study are in many ways congruent with the findings from previous studies on the experience of depression. For example, the experience of weariness described in this study echoed the results of Farmer (2002) and Spillman (2006), who reported participant descriptions of feeling physically drained and weak from their experiences of depression. Leno (2007) described how participants placed a great deal of pressure on themselves while they were struggling with depression and felt as though there was no room for mistake or injury, similar to how participants of this study described experiencing self-doubt and being overly critical of their performance and abilities.
Also, Spillman (2006) identified the feeling of being out of control, a general category in the current study, as the ground in men’s experiences of depression. The participants in that study described depression as unpredictable, and they felt powerless to control it. In their research on the experience of falling apart, Pollio et al. (1997) also described a theme of being out of control. Participants in that study described feeling a lack of control over their lives, behavior, and emotions. The participants in the study by Pollio et al. also described feeling vulnerable or helpless, feelings echoed by participants in the current study as well.
Finally, Farmer (2002) and Spillman (2006) both found that anger was a significant aspect of the participants’ experiences of depression, as it was in the current study as well. In Farmer’s study, adolescents with depression described feelings of anger the most frequently and used the anger as a barometer for how they were handling their depression. According to Jackson and Finney (2002), young adults often respond to stressful life events with anger.
Other aspects of the results are also worthy of note, including the language used by participants to describe their experiences of depression. Language is important in phenomenological research because it enables the expression of experience, yet it may also serve as a limitation (Allen-Collinson, 2009; Willig, 2008).Participants may rely on certain words or phrases that they feel comfortable with while shying away from other descriptions, or have a difficult time locating the words to describe their experiences, as Spillman (2006) noted. In the present study, participants struggled at times with the same problem. Perhaps due to the negatively loaded term depression (Mentink, 2001) participants often found more casual descriptors. For example, they often said they had felt down, or used the terms hard, tough, or shitty to describe their experiences.
Interestingly, gender did not seem to play a large role in the current study, as participants rarely mentioned it as an important aspect of their experience. Further, the results that emerged were similar to previous phenomenological studies of depression conducted with male participants (Leno, 2007; Spillman, 2006) or both male and female participants (Farmer, 2002; Mentink, 2001). The reason for these similarities cannot be determined without further research, but may be more reflective of participants' age or athletic status than gender. However, it is certainly possible that the role of gender did play a role in the sources participants cited as contributing to their depression: interpersonal relationships, perfectionism and self-criticism, or the lack of viable post-collegiate sport options, for example. These precipitating events, and the degree to which they may or may not have been gendered, were unexplored by the participants and by the researcher, as the focus of the current study was on the experience of depression itself, not its causes. Future research should certainly address these issues.
Participants described a variety of ways depression had affected their lives. Spillman (2006) discussed how depression can be pervasive, affecting multiple areas of life in significant ways. Participants in this study described a similar experience, highlighting weight gain or loss, changes in eating habits, changes in sleeping patterns, and mood swings, all of which are commonly reported symptoms of depression.
The experience of depression is difficult and unpleasant, and the participants seemed to reflect deeply in an effort to find reasons for the struggles they had faced. Many participants described finding positive lessons to learn and use to move forward in life, and discussed feeling as though they had grown as a result of their experiences. They also felt that they had gained resiliency and explained that their experiences had helped them to feel as if they were ready to move on from sport when the time came. Leno (2007) also found that the experiences of depression had helped participants gain resiliency, and to recognize that there is life after being an athlete.
On the other hand, a depressive episode should never be taken lightly, and receiving care and support early is of vital importance. However, it can be difficult for others to determine if and when to intervene and suggest help for a struggling athlete. Participants expressed often receiving either too little support or ineffective support from others. Support was ineffective if the athlete was not yet ready to accept help, or if the support was perceived to be shallow or unrealistic. It was vital to the participants that they felt those providing them support truly cared and understood what they were going through. According to the participants in this study, effective and empathetic support from others who are experiencing the same struggles, or had in the past, would have been invaluable.
The present study also demonstrated that the coach’s role in providing support to athletes struggling with depression can be difficult to navigate. Coaches were sources of support for five participants, but the others reported not turning to their coach or feeling unsupported by them. Mentink (2001) found that athletes often did not want to approach their coach about their struggles with depression out of fear of rejection or retribution (i.e., removal from team, reduced playing time, etc.).
It is also extremely important for coaches to be familiar with the symptoms of depression and the ways in which athletes may express how they are feeling. This study provided some real-life examples, however, it is important to note that each instance will be different. It is challenging to approach athletes about personal issues such asdepression, but it can be extremely important for their health and their future (Andersen et al., 1994; Cogan, 2000; Gill, 2008; Glick & Horsfall, 2005).
Finally, guiding athletes through injury or rehabilitation, and negotiating the transition out of sport upon graduation is an important role for the coach. Participants in the current study felt that their coaches did not do much, if anything, to support them through these times. There should be ongoing support for injured athletes so that they do not feel abandoned, and discussions of life after college sport to aid in the transition of graduating athletes. College athletic departments could organize support groups for injured or retiring athletes with the guidance of qualified sport psychologists.
Finally, with respect to future research, while the current study was delimited only to self-reported depression, future studies may be interested in adding a diagnostic delimitation prior to participant selection. It is not possible to predict how results would differ, but investigating the depression experiences of a clinical population could provide an interesting comparison to the results of the current study.
It may also be potentially beneficial to utilize quantitative measures used in previous studies of depression in collegiate athletes (Armstrong & Oomen-Early, 2009; Donohue et al., 2004; Proctor & Boan-Lenzo, 2010; Storch et al., 2005; Wyshak, 2001; Yang et al., 2007). Though it would not conform to strict existential-phenomenological research methods, using a mixed-methods design with quantitative methods could provide additional depth to the results. Relying solely on interview-based research methods may be a potential limitation, as participants may feel uncomfortable discussing all aspects of their experiences.
Finally, future studies may wish to conduct multiple interviews over a longer period of time, or include interviews with family members or coaches that are familiar with the athlete participating in the study, as with Mentink (2001). These approaches may allow for a greater depth of understanding of the experience of depression.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ted M. Butryn, San Jose State University, One Washington Square, San Jose, CA 95192-0054, Theodore.firstname.lastname@example.org, (408) 924-3068 (phone), (408) 924-3053 (fax)
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