It’s common knowledge that sport can improve many areas of a person's mental health such as self-esteem, confidence, feelings of competence, cognitive functioning, and emotion regulation. At the same time exercise is known to reduce anxiety, depression and negative mood. Why then, do we need to keep an eye out for concerns related to our athletes mental health? I’ll tell you why - It is because there is a huge difference between sport and our top performance athletes.
Athletes and Mental Health
Athletes are under higher stress than regular everyday sportspeople. This is due to added stress such as, pressure to achieve success, demanding schedules with less relaxation time, intense physical training programmes, participating in high pressure competitions (national and international), physical or/and mental burn out, higher incidences of injuries, and large amounts of travel and time away from home, family and friends.
Studies show that early identification and the support of experienced mental health workers can reduce the severity and possible decline of high performance athletes’ mental health.
Coaches and their fighters generally develop a strong relationship based on a deep seated mutual trust. This means a trainer has the opportunity to identify possible mental health needs more easily and earlier than other people in an athlete’s life. Sadly, studies have proven that athletes are more likely to avoid counseling programs than regular individuals, and their mental health needs are not currently being adequately addressed. A delay in accessing mental health support impacts on an athletes ability to perform at their best, and this means our potential champions won’t reach their projected peak.
What types of mental health issues?
The main mental health issues identified by athletes include depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. All of these are brought on by alterations in the athletes’ feeling, thinking, and behaviour which can lead to significant distress and impaired functioning in their personal lives and professional careers.
These feelings can be exacerbated by the fear that seeking help might make them look weak and because of this, many will continue to suffer in silence. Coaches and Federations have a duty to care toward the mental health of their athletes. Together we must safeguard the mental health of our athletes as well as provide and sustain healthy training and competitive environments. To do this more fully our coaches need to undergo education on the definition, causes, and symptoms of mental illness, and how to refer athletes for help and support.
Challenges facing coaches.
Coaches already take on a whole range of responsibilities and the care of an athletes’ mental health is just as important to their success as the care of their physical health. However, most coaches are not trained to identify and deal with mental health issues. However, if federations and clubs can help by including education in this area to their coaching curriculum, coaches will be able to spot issues and athletes at risk earlier rather than later.
Next, knowing who to connect the athletes with to ensure they receive positive professional help is key. Identifying when and how to connect our athletes with the help they need is sometimes the hardest step, and coaches need support in navigating these types of scenarios. At the same time, coaches need to manage potential conflicts between their athletes’ trust and desire for confidentiality versus informing family members about any issues. We must not forget that coaches themselves face potential mental health issues and may be in need of support themselves, after all coaches and trainers are under a lot of pressure to perform too.
Why should an athletes mental health be important to a coach?
There is substantial evidence that there are connections between an athletes mood and their recovery rate. In addition an athlete’s sleep quality and anxiety levels are related to motivation and performance levels. Studies have proven that nearly 50% of top athletes report depressive symptoms and poor sleep quality and this is alarming.
Research also shows that external standards have the largest effect on athletes. Reward and punishment, and social approval from peers and coaches have a negative effect on an athlete. If a coach fosters an environment that supports empathy and intrinsic rewards their athletes are more likely to continue to have positive mental health. It has been found that the more control an athlete has over their goals, the higher their feelings of self-worth will be.
What can a federation or coach do to help make a difference?
Making ‘psychological monitoring’ a compulsory component for national teams can help, especially if the members only meet for discrete blocks of time (e.g., training camps, tournaments). Asking an athlete’s regular (home) coach to help by continuing to monitor athletes when they are back home training would ensure continued support for the athletes mental health needs.
MAC was developed specifically to target the core processes that underlie mental health and performance issues.
Below are websites that contain information on this and other methods or resources.
This method has shown positive results for top female athletes suffering from anxiety and eating concerns.
Resources that have proven effective
The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) is one approach that has shown effectiveness in supporting athletes mental health.
By: Sue Glassey, Chair of Gender Equality Commission