Playing sports as an overseas athlete can be challenging. Not only do you need to adjust to the new environment and culture, but also the gameplay and social norms in each country you play in. Sports culture and playing rules may vary between countries, so it’s important to understand how these cultural differences can impact your performance. To stay grounded, keep your mind sharp, and the minimize risk of burnout while competing abroad, here are some mental health tips for overseas athletes.
Learn the Cultural Differences
“When in Rome…” As fun—and cliché—as the saying might be, adopting to cultural norms in a new country can be challenging. When you were a kid and you changed schools or if you ever moved to a new city, for example, you undoubtedly experienced an adaption phase. New people, new rules, new social norms, and even new dialects were probably all a part of the changes you experienced. When you’re an overseas athlete, these changes are magnified as there are likely vast differences in cultural norms, food, language, etc.
A new environment and a new way of living can feel confusing, stressful, and isolating. Before you travel to be with your new team, see if you can contact someone who has either played for the same team or in the same region. They may be able to offer some tips to help you prepare. You can also do some research on your own about the cultural differences that you may encounter. This preparation may help you reduce stress when you arrive.
Manage Isolation and Loneliness
Isolation and loneliness are big threats to mental health for professional overseas athletes. Maybe not everyone understands what you are going through and/or you don’t have someone who you can relate to on your team or in your new city.
To combat isolation, many players retreat to their homes and connect with their friends and family back home via social media, streaming, or video games. While this can certainly help, the reality is that we all need peer to peer connection, and there are benefits to spending time with people in person. Try to hang out with your teammates outside of the locker room. You can also look for groups, meetups, or classes in the area that appeal to your interests. For example, if you are also a musician, look to see if there are any groups for musicians in the area you’re in. You can also get out and explore the area by acting like a tourist and signing up for tours and excursions. Only go to safe areas and always use your best judgment, but get out there and meet people.
Pay Attention to Physical and Emotional Signals
Did you know that mental health issues can have both physical and emotional signals? For example, anxiety might be accompanied by a stomachache, racing heart rate, dizziness, or even headaches. If something feels off to you, don’t assume it will just go away. Check with a health professional who can help you determine if what you’re experiencing is part of a larger issue.
Find a Support Partner
Before you head out to your new professional team, set up a support team along with scheduled check-ins. While time differences may be a barrier, there are people who will be available to speak with you on your new schedule. For example, reach out to a mental health professional or therapist who can meet with you virtually. You may also want to speak with an athlete mental wellness or life coach who can serve as your support partner during your new venture.
Prepare for Life After the Game
Eventually, every athlete will retire. While that may not be at the top of your mind when you’re signing your next contract, preparation can help ease the stress and shock of transitioning into the next phase of your life. This way, when your career ends—whether it’s your choice or not—you’ll have a plan in place for your next steps. Many athletes fall into depression or suffer from other mental health issues when their sports career ends but you can help yourself by preparing with the help of transition coaches and/or a life after sports transition program.
Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help
Many people hold themselves back from getting help because they prefer to figure their problems out on their own. While you certainly have to take personal responsibility for your wellbeing, you don’t have to do it alone. There are confidential and judgment-free spaces where you can speak to someone and get help. Sometimes, just the act of talking can help you relieve stress and find clarity. As I like to say, “there ain’t no shame in the inner struggle game.” We all go through challenges and difficulties. You can get to the solution faster and find greater relief with the right support team so reach out. Go ahead and reach out and relieve some of the weight on your shoulders. Remember, problems don’t mean you’re weak, they mean you’re human.
Misty Buck is the founder of PurposeSoul® Athletics, the author of the book, “Athlete Mental Health Playbook,” and a coach and contributor with the Hall of Fame Health, an affiliate of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She can be reached at https://purposesoulathletics.com/.