Everyone aspires to feel fulfilment (5). Through life you will face challenging situations which are demanding and stressful. Every athlete fails, gets injured, experiences negative life events and retires. Some individuals have the capability to overcome these challenges, and others cannot cope and they suffer. The athletes that do not have the capacity to face extreme pressure will not thrive. In elite sport several athletes have struggled to cope with their mental health and have experienced problems which have led to mental illness and in some cases suicide (2).
“One in four of us in the UK will be affected by a mental health problem in any year and elite sports professionals are no different.”
Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for Mind
Throughout an elite athlete’s career they can be exposed to up to 640 stressors that may cause a mental disorder (1). Encountering this high amount of pressure comes from factors such as; recovering from injury, selection, and scrutinised by the media. It is also apparent that many elite athletes do not understand the importance of mental health and how to effectively optimise or maintain it (8). This is why they can be so prone to mental ill health and not thrive in their performance (23).
All of the ex elite athletes above have experienced or are still experiencing mental illness
Thriving is the process of development and success, which enables athletes to consistently function and sustain performance (5). Holistic functioning is the key to this as it means mental health and performance are both at a high level (19). This means that the athletes own individual factors (e.g. own mind-set) maintain their mental health and performance over a considerable length of time.
THRIVING IN PERFORMANCE
Is the ability to execute skills at a high-quality level and sustain it for a long period of time, whilst maintaining high levels of well-being (5). Therefore, the athlete is physically fit and healthy, mentally healthy, socially competent and emotionally regulated to develop and succeed. This means the athlete is sound in all four corners of performance (i.e. physical, tactical, technical and mental) to reach the demands of their sport and life, have the resources and can thrive in an elite pressured environment (inside sport) and overall function as a human being (outside of sport) (20). Consequently, if the athlete is maximising their performance by executing their skills, but their mental health is at a low level, the thriving process will not be sustained. This can lead to negative outcomes such as injury and burn-out and if they do not have sufficient coping mechanisms the athlete will be vulnerable and suffer (17).
MENTAL HEALTH IN ELITE SPORT
Although, mental health awareness is increasing, there are still barriers. There is still a huge stigma towards mental health within sporting culture and this can lead to athletes feeling reluctant to speak out or seek support. This is because they can become worried about their sport’s staff, the general public or the opposition’s perception of them, particularly if they seek support because elite sport still holds onto a ‘mental toughness’ umbrella (3). This mental toughness culture can mean that athletes feel ashamed and embarrassed for being diagnosed with a mental disorder, it being perceived as showing ‘mental weakness’ (7). As a result many athletes don’t talk about their stress and mental battles which leads to further complications. They can go down the route of suppressing their emotions and even though they are experiencing an emotion like sadness they will present a happy demeanour or isolate themselves to avoid being judged negatively (22). As time goes on this coping mechanism can cause further problems for the athlete’s mental health and performance. This is because the demands they experience inside and outside of sport weigh on them and they do not have the internal resources to overcome their stress. Their coping strategies are unhealthy so their performance declines as their mental health is neglected. In summary, an ‘illness-based lens’ is the way mental health is regarded which feeds into the stigma even more. This means that athletes struggle to understand what mental health clearly is in elite sport (12).
This year a sport specific definition of mental health was produced so that elite athletes could relate to it:
“mental health is not merely the absence of illness, but a state of well-being in which those involved in competitive sport realise their purpose and potential, can cope with competitive sport demands and normal life stressors, can work productively and fruitfully, can act autonomously according to their personal values, are able to make a contribution to their community and feel they can seek support when required” (4).
To further increase knowledge and understanding of mental health these are the main signs of mental illness (14):
1. Lack of interest and enjoyment in anything
2. Lack of self-care
3. Negative thoughts and feelings
4. Irrational thoughts, feelings and behaviours
5. Prolonged low mood
6. Struggle to control emotions
8. Struggle to maintain any type of relationship
9. Highly stressed
10. Sleeping problems
13. Low self-esteem
Taking into account the sport specific definition of mental health and the main signs of mental ill-health, leads to the personal facilitators of what athletes need to possess to thrive in their mental health and performance in an elite sport setting and outside of sport.
These contribute towards optimum performance and mental health. This means the athlete has the suitable internal resources to manage and overcome the challenges they face in their performance and everyday life (6). They are the qualities which the individual possess’ to positively influence their confidence, motivation, focus and overall mind-set so they can consistently commit and manage the stress and pressure of training, competition and everyday life. However, this can only occur if the athlete values, trusts and is committed towards their career development, and look after their mental health (5).
This is when an athlete is optimistic, feels confident in their own ability and has high self-esteem. They value who they are, what they can do and they believe in themselves. This mind-set is maintained when they experience any stress or face any challenges (20).
TECHNIQUES FOR A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
POSITIVE SELF-TALK (13)
These athletes strive to reach their potential by always wanting to learn and be open to new experiences. They want to challenge themselves, to grow, develop and succeed. Through this process they want to gain knowledge and skills for their performance, to reach its peak. Pushing themselves to their limits and highly passionate about their sport as they see it as meaningful and of value (10). The athlete accepts and takes responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Growth can only happen when they accept: their issues for what they are, that the past cannot be changed, that the present and future can be changed and are interested in new insights and information.
TECHNIQUES FOR BEING PROACTIVE
Having the ability to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours under different conditions; high, medium or low pressure (20). The athlete is aware of how to respond appropriately and effectively to any situation as they focus on relevant information and do not get distracted. Having the skill-set to adapt and concentrate on what matters in the present moment and they execute their skills accordingly and consistently to a high level. Feeling in control enables the athlete to respond appropriately and effectively to others to build higher quality relationships and work more efficiently with them (24).
TECHNIQUES FOR CONTROL
BREATHING EXERCISE (16)
Can be included with imagery by:
It is virtually impossible to experience absolute balance in life as there are so many day-to-day factors and influences. As an elite athlete there are lots of training and competitions and with that comes high amounts of travelling, media work etc. This can make it highly challenging affecting ability to have a healthy routine, but there are lots of ways to make sure your looking after your mind and body. Therefore, the athlete does not over train, burn-out and has an identity outside of their sport. By having an identity within and outside sport creates a multidimensional purpose and increases their self-worth. This also accommodates the transition into retirement in the future (20).
TECHNIQUES FOR BALANCE (11)
TAKE THE EDGE OFF
TAKE HOME MESSAGES