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Mental Health Awareness in Sports

The field of sport and performance psychology seeks to understand the conditions under which performance is maximized. Researchers study thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to better understand the individual processes that lead to peak performance. They also study the context of performance, because people interact with their environment and are influenced by circumstances and setting. Given the complexity of the field, it is easy to get caught up in performance maximization and forget another vitally important piece to the puzzle: enjoyment.

Psychological health and well-being are important concepts to review for both the general athlete population and also for elite athletes and peak performance. Professionals in the top ranks of performance fields often forget the value of enjoyment, while performance becomes paramount. For example, extrinsic motivation (money, fame, awards, praise) can drive a person to perform well, and we know that those factors are at play at elite levels of sport. However, research shows that this type of motivation undermines satisfaction and enjoyment, and therefore is unsustainable in the long term. Some argue that it is a necessary skill to learn to perform well even when not enjoying it—a type of grit or mental toughness. While it may be true that learning to cope with adversity and building resilience is important, chronically fighting these battles over time can lead to fatigue and burnout.

In order to maximize performance, one must cultivate autonomous, intrinsic forms of motivation, which result in greater interest and engagement in the activity. The demands of performance can be very high, and pressures can come from many different sources. The ability to manage those stressors and find joy in performance is essential for long-term success. Having intrinsic motivation helps keep the emotional tank full, fueling resilience and self-determination. Perhaps the biggest source of intrinsic motivation and passion for sports is in flow states, where performance peaks and the limits of human potential are explored. Being “in the zone” is an extremely enjoyable state, and in order to enter this state regularly, performers must have sound mental health and clear out areas of trouble in their lives.

One avenue of tackling mental health challenges is to improve access to mental health professionals. Athletes and performers must have resources and support staff who are trained to help them through personal struggles. Furthermore, it’s important that these communication pathways are normalized rather than stigmatized. Creating more acceptance for mental health issues can happen through regular structured check-ins with individuals so that the entire team/organization takes part in the discussion. Creating a culture of verbalizing life’s struggles and accepting those who are experiencing them is also key. Coaches, staff, and other leaders should also be trained to observe and establish their athletes’ baseline behaviors and detect unusual behaviors and warning signs of mental health issues. The traditional approach of reacting to signals of distress is an important piece of the mental health puzzle, but we must also combine this with a more modern, proactive approach.

Mental health professionals are often thought to be responsible for helping people to deal with “problems” or “crisis” situations. However, many of these professionals take a proactive approach in helping individuals build skills to cope with stressors before they become debilitating illnesses and detrimental to performance. Mental skills consultants and performance specialists develop strategies and techniques that assist athletes to build mental skills as a buffer for when calamity arises. Taking the initiative to speak with a professional, at any time, shows great courage and helps to destigmatize mental health issues. May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and along with COVID, discussions about the subject are rampant. Athletes, coaches, and professionals in the performance domain are encouraged to read more about mental health this month (and every month) and contribute to finding ways that we can promote awareness in our sector.

For those who are on a personal quest to improve mental health, and are interested in practical tips, here are three simple practices to help exercise a positive mindset:

  1. Journaling – keep a regular journal to track things like mood/emotions and their triggers, accomplishments, objectives, inspirations, intentions; making this a daily habit helps with self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control

  2. Attitude of Gratitude – practice being grateful by exploring all the things that make your life and activities possible; practicing gratitude regularly keeps us humble and grounded and puts emphasis on positive aspects of life, making those brain pathways easier to access later, cultivating positivity

  3. Routines – creating a regular set of ordered behaviors automatizes action so that we spend less mental energy, removing friction between behaviors and making it easier to retain habits

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