Have you experienced this that when you are in the right mental state, enjoy what you are doing and have fun while training, competing or even in school, your performance improved faster and easier compared to when you didn’t really enjoy it? Well, I certainly have. What we often forget is that competing not always solely about pushing your own limits, improving your stamina or beating your personal or general record. Mental health, feeling comfortable and happy in whatever you are doing is just as important!
Mental health is a key factor in every professional discipline – doesn’t even matter whether it’s in sports or in business or school. If you want to perform at an elite level in any area, your mental health must be in “shape”, too. If you are anxious of failing, if you doubt yourself, or if nervousness controls you, the chances to perform at your best will decrease.
Professional sports have nowadays reached a very high level. Besides equipment development, intensive research in sport science, nutrition and so on, increased competitive sport puts even more pressure on athletes because no single flaw is accepted (I’m sure that with climbing being in the Olympics now, both the external and internal expectations and pressure will even increase more). Athletes are therefore challenged to keep their physical and mental health in balance. The line between adequate and insufficient recovery time for the body but also for the mind is very thin and any little deviation can have a big impact on an athlete’s performance.
The WHO (2014) has recognized mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.
A specific definition for elite athletes is needed to highlight the fact that the absence of a clinical disorder doesn’t equal a healthy and fit athlete. Probably every athlete faces challenging situations, or even long time-spans with a lot of ups and downs, or e.g. a volcano of different emotions. These challenges can impact an athlete’s mental health and physical performance drastically. If an athlete doesn’t have the opportunity to get support, he/she might end up experiencing depression, anxiety of eating disorders, which are common issues among athletes.
This doesn’t mean to pathologise athletes’ experiences but to value the human behind the performance and to take unpleasant states such as performance anxiety, nervousness and doubts seriously. Athletes and coaches should be aware that athletes do not have to be diagnosed with a mental disorder to benefit from sport psychological treatment.
Often athletes struggle because of an inadequate environment which could be easily changed when being supported by a specialist. The environment won’t cause mental health issues per se but an environment can nourish or malnourish an athlete’s mental health and physical performance. For example, the attitude „medals at all costs“, allowing bullying, pressure, forcing training or even competing while injured or sick, not allowing academic pursuits and non-sport friendships and ignoring athletes’ mental health will most likely have a negative impact on any athlete. An environment with a positive impact on an athlete’s mental health is integrated, value based, sends clear messages and engages in practices that are coherent with these values, allows multiple identities (e.g. athlete, friend, sibling, artist, etc.), and empowers the athletes (Henriksen & Stambulova, 2017; Mountjoy, Rhind, Tilbas & Leglise, 2015).
Mental health is related to, but separate from performance (Moesch et al., 2018 ). This means that athletes with excellence mental health have a greater chance to perform well, especially over the long period of time. At the same time is good mental health is not essential to perform well.
An athlete’s mental health can also impact the life after the athletic career: if an athlete values a healthy mind, he or she will also have an easier time to cope with a career end and adapt to the changes and challenges which come along with it. A transition to a non-athletic life can trigger lurking issues or cause distress because of ignoring post-career topics regarding finance, lifestyle or personality.
As Henriksen et al. (2019) suggest, “mental health is a core component of a culture of excellence”. With the increased pressure on elite, professional, and now future Olympic climbers, the training exposure, expectations for performance and results simultaneously increase, which we have just mentioned to be a potential threat to an athlete’s mental health. In fact, this is not just made up – studies confirm significant levels of mental ill health among athletes (e.g. Foskett & Long- staff, 2018; Schaal et al., 2011). If we only focus on "winning at any cost”, we neglect the fact that behind every performance there is a human.
Reflect on how much you train your body physically. Think of how much time you spend on your mental training? How do you fulfill your psychological needs? Do you have strategies to support your mental health and well-being? Investing time and energy in your mental health doesn’t necessarily mean for you to always see a psychologist (even though it can help), you can work on it on your own, using your own strategies if that’s what you prefer. Main fact is that you – as an athlete – but also organisations and trainers have to take it seriously and be mindful about the importance of mental health in sports.
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