We see athletes as healthy and some of the most physically fit individuals on the planet often tolerating extremes of physical endurance. We are always shocked when an athlete gets diagnosed with an underlying life-threatening cardiovascular abnormality or dies suddenly in a sporting event. Regular physical activity improves cardiovascular fitness and lowers the risk of cardiac disease. As my friend Dr. Aaron Baggish, says, this is the “runner’s paradox.” Under intense physical exertion and with a substrate of significant cardiac disease—whether congenital or acquired—athletes may succumb to sudden cardiac death.
How Can a Clinical Sports Psychologist Help?
When facing a new diagnosis athletes are confronted with many complex emotions as they need to understand the reality of their condition. Not all heart disease is equal. Some diagnoses render athletes suddenly retired and others require surgery, specific cardiac rehabilitation with physician clearance of full return to play. Athletes do have to work through psychological stages post-diagnosis. Many initially have to deal with their immediate reactions to their diagnosis (denial, shock, feeling overwhelmed by understanding lethality) and immediate challenges to their athletic identity. Other aspects of coping including managing grief, integrating the diagnosis with identity concerns, acceptance as part of what happens months and years after diagnosis. A seasoned clinical sport psychologist can facilitate this process by helping the athlete explore and cope with the co-occuring implications of their diagnosis.