Mental Health and Elite Sport

It’s encouraging to hear the many voices of elite athletes that have spoken out about mental health and sport. There have also been some tragic suicides.

Sports people experience extreme pressure to score goals, run faster and win trophies all under the watchful eye of their fans and followers as well as the scrutiny from the media. All have an opinion (and are not afraid to express it) on how they can improve and the errors they have made in their last performance.

Research

Research from Mind identified three areas of mental health concern that coincides with times of key transition:

  1. Leaving

What happens when an athlete must come to terms outside of sport? A young person may join a football academy at 16 years of age but how many of them are playing professional football at the age of 21? A bad performance can lead to being dropped and funding being withdrawn.

For those who continue their career into adult hood, this usually brings a higher profile and added pressures and expectations.

  1. Retirement

Facing retirement form sport is a particularly daunting time for most athletes. They have identified as athletes, and this is now being taken away from them.

  1. Struggling in Silence

Many sports people have spoken out about their own struggles with mental health; including depression, self-harm and anxiety and they have actively encouraged others to do the same. The amount of people suffering in silence is unknown. It is understandable that those who are still playing and competing are reticent about speaking out. They are concerned what impact asking for help may have on their career; unfortunately demonstrating there is still a stigma attached to mental health.

Mind’s research went on to explore 6 sports that showed sports clubs, governing bodies and player associations are starting to recognise that mental health is as important as physical health.

The 6 sports they looked at are Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union, Cricket and individual sports – Athletics and Swimming.

Key Learnings

  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to address the mental health issues that exist in sport. All sports have different needs as they do not have same structure. The report recognised that there are already some great initiatives in place and best practices and learning outcomes should be shared.
  • There is a need to carry on and build on the mental health initiatives that have been started by individuals and player associations, in collaboration with clubs and across team sports.
  • More support needs to be given to athletes at key transition periods in their careers. E.g. entering professional sport, signing their first contract, dealing with long term injury and retirement.
  • Confidentiality and independence were recognised as highly important to athletes when providing mental health support. There is also underlying concern about how a mental health problem may impact on their career.

As part of the sport strategy ‘Sporting Future’ government has been looking at how sport can improve its offer of mental health support to elite sports people. ‘Sporting Future’ not only recognised the impact sport has on physical and mental health but also highlighted the sacrifices athletes make in striving for success.