Isaac Zur, PhD, CMPC

Isaac Zur, PhD, CMPC

Mental health among professional athletes has been dominating press coverage and public conversation around the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with US Gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from competition due to mental health challenges just months after Tennis Star Naomi Osaka, also an Olympian, withdrew from the French Open due to anxiety and depression. Psycom Pro spoke to Isaac Zur, PhD, a certified mental performance consultant who works with professional athletes, about this environment, the context behind it, and what mental health professionals need to know when working with professional athletes.


Psy-Q: When beginning a relationship with a professional athlete, what additional considerations should mental health professionals keep in mind?

Dr. Zur: Professional athletes, or performance athletes, differ from the average client in the intensity of their lifestyle and the amount of feedback they are exposed to. The average athlete competes on a weekly basis during the season, is expected to maintain a high level of performance and functioning throughout the season, and, when they under-perform, the implicit or explicit feedback to “get back on track right away” is immediate and sometimes harsh. In addition, unlike the average client, they are constantly being measured by objective data, such as their number of wins, ranking, score, and so forth.

A professional athlete struggling with mental health issues such as eating disorders, depression, or general anxiety disorder, should be working with a mental health clinician to support them as they navigate through their mental health and life challenges as these can affect their ability to fulfill their athletic potential.

Prior to beginning a relationship with a performance athlete, it is important that the athletes and performers access the services they need to achieve optimal functioning. We want to determine what type of provider is most appropriate based on the individual’s level of functioning and performance. An athlete or performer could be struggling in life but doing really well in their sport/area of performance. In this case, they may need a mental health provider. On the other hand, a person could be doing well in their personal life but really struggling in terms of their mental performance – in which case they would be better served by a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC).

Psy-Q: In what ways might the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate anxiety or depression in professional athletes, and how can mental health professionals help them get through this more than difficult period?

Dr. Zur: The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled many sporting events and shows, and training facilities were closed for a long periods of time. Athletes felt isolated from their peers and were unable to practice regularly to improve in their sport or career. Furthermore, they experienced a lot of uncertainty regarding their future career and ability to accomplish their personal goals; they experienced an emotional roller-coaster.

Mental health practitioners and organizations play a crucial role in helping to mitigate the effects of this extremely fluid situation. For example, they can help them deal with the constant influx of information, changes to daily routines, and the uncertainty with personal health and the health of others – all of which are physically and emotionally draining.

Psy-Q: In your clinical view, what is behind what’s happening on the Olympic stage – that is, athletes such as Team USA Gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from competition due to mental health stress and/or burnout and Naomi Osaka taking a break from tennis? 

Dr. Zur: I believe that the recent events relating to mental health issues and burnout in the Olympic stage stem from a number of factors, of which some are personal and unknown. Since the 2016 Olympic Games, Michael Phelps, the most-decorated Olympian to date has been open about his mental health challenges, including depression and suicidal thoughts. He opened the door to many other high-level performers struggling with mental health challenges and no longer needed to hide it or feel ashamed. Since then, there has been increased awareness of the importance of mental health and well-being among athletes, and there has been a growing consensus that mental health should be addressed first regardless of any possible professional negative consequences – because we are human first and athletes second.

Psy-Q: Since the beginning of the COIVD-19 pandemic, we have seen a further cultural shift in acknowledging mental health and the need for care. Do you see this as a trend or permanent change?

Dr. Zur: I do not believe it is a trend – it will most likely evolve into a permanent change. However, I also believe it will shift back a little and find its balance point where mental health issues are addressed and treated early on so athletes (and others) can focus on their professional and personal goals. At the end of the day, our mission as mental health professionals is to help them be able to compete, perform, and accomplish their goals – while enjoying the process.

Last Updated: Sep 30, 2021