How Mental Health Mediates Sports Performance
The worlds of high-performance, elite, and professional athletics can impose difficult conditions on all who are involved or work within them. Just like other high-pressure working environments and careers, professional performance sports can create huge amounts of stress and mental strain not only for athletes but for virtually all members of the sporting ecosystem.
Sports’ performance-oriented nature can make this true not only of professional athletes but athletes, coaches, and individuals in just about every level or area of sport.
Because of this, mental health is becoming a prevalent concern within sporting contexts around the world. Understanding the interplay between mental health and sports performance is a vital prerequisite to keeping not just athletes but all sport professionals and enthusiasts healthy and operating optimally in what can often be a difficult and demanding landscape.
The History of Psychology and Mental Health Practice in Sport
Awareness of mental health concerns and best practice has only relatively recently entered mainstream sport. Even though the history of psychology as an official academic field of study has spanned more than 100 years, mental health awareness has become a more forefront topic of conversation in many sporting communities only within the last decade.
Campaigns and publicized discussions of mental health within the sports world (take for example gymnast Simone Biles’s outspoken mental health advocacy after the 2021 Tokyo Olympics) have traditionally received pushback and criticism, and even now are sometimes the subjects of heated debates or differences of opinion. However, the sporting ecosystem is becoming more accepting and proactive about addressing and supporting mental health concerns in effective ways.
What was a topic formerly absent from discussion, training, program design, franchise policy, and public discourse is now being prioritized and integrated in sports programming ranging from elite professional organizations all the way to the youngest tiers of grassroots community sport. This bodes incredibly well for the sporting context as a whole and particularly for the athletes that have historically borne the brunt of insufficient mental health knowledge and care.
How Mental Health Affects the World of Sport
As mentioned above, a primary reason the world of sport needs to pay close attention to mental health needs is due to its highly performance-oriented and competitive nature. Especially in high-performance and professional sport environments, expectations and demands made of athletes are high and leave little room for error. Just like exertion or high training demands cause strain on the physical body, psychologically taxing and demanding environments create huge amounts of mental stress.
When an athlete experiences these stressors at high levels and/or for sustained periods of time, they can eventually experience mental illness if those stressors are not properly attended to. In extreme cases, these instances of mental illness can become irreversible. Similarly, high levels of mental stress or pressure can occur for any number of position types or roles in sporting organizations. Even individuals that aren’t athletes but that work within sporting contexts can suffer the same types of mental health strain (and eventually illness) if that stress isn’t handled or alleviated in appropriate ways.
One of the most common causes of mental strain within sport is, predictably, tied to expectations for individual or team performance. As an example, a high-performance team sport program, such as an undergraduate-level varsity basketball team, can often experience significant collective pressure for the entirety of each basketball season (6-7 months of the year) due to individual, team, coach, administration, campus, and community expectations for their performance and win-loss record.
Professional athletes experience similar or more intense levels of stress when their employment and livelihoods depend on their continued professional performance. Pre-Olympic athletes (and their trainers and teams) feel the sustained stress of not knowing whether their training regimens will result in meeting their goals and getting to compete in the Olympics. For each of these cases and many more, stress and mental strain is a regular, significant, and often sustained experience.
Mental Health Medications and Athletes
Athletes and other sports professionals within the sporting context that have experienced mental health difficulties or are being treated for mental health issues face a unique challenge that others don’t have to consider. Medications are prescribed as standard treatment protocol for many of today’s mental health conditions. However, for high-level performance athletes, ingesting certain substances could provide grounds for being expelled or excluded from competition.
It’s extremely important for medical professionals working with athletes or sports professionals to consult carefully with the athlete or knowledgeable officials before prescribing any medications to treat mental health concerns or conditions. This is imperative so as not to accidentally prescribe a substance or drug that could render that athlete ineligible for competition.
Tips for Maintaining Strong Mental Health as an Athlete or Sports Professional
If you are a high-performance athlete or sports professional, it is important to make sure you are aware of how mental health concerns manifest so that you can identify any risks and treat them proactively both in yourself and in your staff, teammates, or fellow athletes. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Take Mental Health Concerns Seriously
Don’t be intimidated by other athletes, coaches, or staff that belittle you for mental health concerns. If you’re worried about your mental health, seek help immediately.
Treat Mental Health Concerns in Others Seriously
Conversely, do not contribute to a culture that treats mental health problems with silence, insults, and isolation. This is extremely harmful and dangerous. Encourage those around you to be open about their struggles and help make spaces safe to talk about difficult problems such as mental health.
Develop a Mental Health First Aid Routine
Identify activities, pastimes, and tools that help you feel better or less stressed when you’re having a difficult day. Keep them at hand and make sure to utilize them when you’re feeling stress build up. Check in honestly with yourself at regular intervals to identify when you’re feeling more stressed than usual, and employ this “mental first aid kit” to help you reduce mental health strain.
We hope you enjoyed the article “How Mental Health Mediates Sports Performance.” Does participating in sport benefit your mental health? Let us know!
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