The Connection Between Heat and Athlete’s Mental Health

Sports famously hold an emotional place for fans, athletes, and coaches alike. The thrill of victory, the vision of Michael Jordan crying with a championship trophy, the joy in a parade.

There is also the emotion felt with defeat and loss, sometimes resulting in anger and frustration. Media underscores the competitive spirit and archetypes of the tough sports figures. For generations, athletes and fans have seen movies like “Any Given Sunday”, “Hoosiers” or “Rocky” and have been given the impression that hard work, a great soundtrack and some “tough love” from a coach is all that is required to succeed.

What has been missing in the full picture of sports is the role of mental health in competition, the toll the pressure of winning has on athletes, and how important addressing mental health is to the overall health of athletes. 
Michael Jordan after winning the 1991 NBA Finals
Credit: Andrew Bernstein

The notion of mental health in sports has been almost antithetical to the ideal of a successful athlete.

The concept of mental health has been seen more as a weakness or something that a coach could give an inspiring pep talk or even yell at a team or athlete in order to compel performance. Increasingly, coaches, trainers and athletic departments are starting to embrace psychological health and alternative therapies to the overall health of athletes and seeing improved results. 

While there has been long-standing societal perception of athletes as mentally tough, recently athletes have come forward to describe the impact mental health has on their performance. These high-profile examples help normalize the importance of mental health for other professional athletes as well as amateur sports enthusiasts alike. 

From the movies “Any Given Sunday” Credit: The Donners' Company, Warner Bros. & “Hoosiers” Credit: Orion Pictures

Simone Biles, the American gymnast and four time gold medal holder, has faced some tough times with her mental health.

She has been open regarding her anxiety and depression. Throughout her career, she has been candid about her struggles and the impact it has on her performance and expectations.

In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Ms. Biles made a brave decision to step back from some events to take care of herself. Some people supported her, but others didn't. Critics attacked her as a “national embarrassment” and argued she should no longer be able to compete for USA Gymnastics. This brought a lot of attention to mental health in sports.

Simone Biles and her numerous trophies at the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2021
Credit: NBC Tokyo Summer Olympics 2021 Photoshoot
Ms. Biles’s strength in facing her issues has started important conversations about the pressures athletes go through. She stated it is crucial to “protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Kevin Love after winning the 2016 NBA Finals
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Kevin Love, the NBA star and 2016 champion, has had his own struggles with his mental health.

He's been open about dealing with anxiety and depression. One time during a game, he had a panic attack, and he bravely talked about it. It showed that athletes face a lot of pressure that we might not see.

But instead of keeping it all inside, Mr. Love decided to be an advocate for mental wellness. He's been focused on breaking down the idea that athletes can't talk about their feelings and he has encouraged others to get help too.

The fear of athletes being seen as weak when they open up about their mental health struggles is a real and tough challenge in the sports world. Mental health is just as important as physical well-being.

When athletes share vulnerability beyond a physical ailment, they can inspire others to do the same, breaking the stigma around mental health and encouraging a more caring and supportive environment.

While progress has been made to understand the importance of mental health, the public is still more forgiving of a player when they miss a game or competition due to a physical injury as opposed to a mental injury.

There remains backlash against a player who is unable to compete due to mental health reasons because of the expectation that the athlete should be able to just “play through”—contrary to the expectations surrounding a physical injury. Unfortunately, the general public has not embraced mental health as having the same debilitating impact as physical health. 

Understanding mental health issues among athletes and coaches is so important for creating a positive and supportive sports environment.

When coaches and trainers have that empathy and understanding, they can recognize when their athletes are struggling and offer the right support. It's all about building a culture of care and openness. When coaches and athletes work together to prioritize mental well-being, it can have a positive impact on athletes’ performance and their lives outside of sports. 

Athletic departments, coaches and trainers can do more to create supportive environments to address positive mental health and alternative therapies to help athletes understand the importance of not only the impact of stress, anxiety, and depression on their performance, but also the importance of other therapeutic treatments to help with recovery. For example, counseling services, meditation and cold therapy should be incorporated into athletes’ routines just like weightlifting and cardio.  

Untreated mental health issues can significantly impact an athlete's performance, leading to a decline in their overall abilities.

When athletes are dealing with anxiety, depression, or other untreated issues, it can affect their focus, motivation, and confidence. They may struggle to concentrate on the game, make decisions, or maintain the drive needed to excel in their sport. Untreated mental health issues can also lead to disrupted sleep patterns, reduced energy levels, and increased stress, all of which can further diminish an athlete's performance. 

The Connection between Heat and Mental Health

Extreme heat can negatively impact mental health in many ways, causing more anger, irritability, aggression, discomfort, stress and fatigue. Extreme heat can also cause dehydration and a lack of sleep.

During this summer, millions of people across the United States have been dealing with scorching heat and humidity. Along with our bodies, it's also impacting our mental well-being. Researchers have found that extreme heat can negatively impact mental health, especially for those with pre-existing mental health issues.

A study from Americares and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, finds that heat can lead to more problems like violence, aggression, and even higher risk of suicide or substance abuse.

The research team demonstrated  that rising temperatures are connected to a range of mental health problems, like feeling mentally exhausted, becoming more easily agitated, and even higher rates of suicide. Hot weather can disrupt our sleep and make us dehydrated, which can worsen our mental health. And if someone is already struggling with social isolation, money worries, or unstable housing, the heat can make things even worse.

While scientists are still trying to understand the relationship between heat and mental health, it is clear that oppressive heat is linked to worsening mental health.

On the hottest days of summer, there were about 8% more people rushing to the emergency room for mental health concerns compared to cooler days. People also report feeling more stressed, angry, and fatigued when the temperature rises above 70 degrees, especially if it's above 90 degrees. Dr. Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster said in an interview with ABC News that high temperatures “affect things like cognition—so our ability to think clearly, make decisions, communicate well, take protective actions.”

The negative impact of extreme heat on mental health is particularly compounded for athletes.

Extreme heat already places stress on athletes and performance in the form of dehydration, decreased endurance, and heat stroke. Adding the negative mental health aspects of heat to athletes, such as reduced cognitive ability, additional stress, and frustration, only exacerbates negative impacts on athletes. This double impact can lead to increased fatigue and poorer athletic performance.


Athletic performance depends on a variety of important factors, including physical conditioning, and mental health.

Athletes at all levels need to focus on their health through exercise, sports conditioning, management of mental health, environment, recovery and staying attuned to the mind-body connection.

Similarly, athletic departments, coaches and trainers need to focus on these variables and stay current on the latest developments on sports performance. Athletes require support in a multitude of ways, including mental health and factors that impact mental health, like heat and stress. Progress has been made to widen the range of supportive therapies needed to help athletes both physically and mentally, but there is still more to be done to normalize the culture around psychological health and the range of therapies designed to promote wellbeing. 

Cold therapy wearables, such as Eztia’s Arctic Patch, can dramatically improve an athlete’s performance both mentally and physically.

Although cryotherapy can improve an athlete's mental health, it is crucial that there is a cultural change in athletics that promotes openness, awareness, and reaching out without consequences.

With a broad cultural change, there will be more openness regarding mental health in athletics and the fight against the social stigma and the heat will be much easier for everyone going through it. 

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