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Mental Health in Sport

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Why is mental health an issue in sport?

In recent years the recognition of professional sports men and women suffering from mental health problems has increased. This highlighting that all of us do struggle with various mental health problems from time to time. They, as do us all, will face the daily pressure and stresses of life. But they also face additional challenges in relation to their chosen sport. These performance related challenges can, at times, serve only to increase the chance of experiencing a mental health problem.

Mental health is an issue in sport as it is now understood that they are simply not immune to challenges we all face. A meta-analysis is a review of many studies, and several were completed and found that elite athletes experience broadly comparable rates of mental ill-health to the general population in relation to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and sleep disorders. The evidence is clear, professional athletes suffer with mental health problems just as frequently the general population.

Additional pressures of being an athlete

High expectations and pressure to perform are part and parcel of playing elite sports, and the intense environment can easily lead to poor mental health. Coupled with the likelihood of a short playing career, it’s no surprise that athletes face a unique set of challenges that can be hard for anyone outside to properly understand.

Athletes will have concerns over their contracts, their performance, managing their social lives away from the sport, and dealing with abuse from the general public. We have seen recently how severe the abuse can be, with professional sports people receiving threats and abuse on social media platforms such as Twitter. The difficulties in maintaining a sense of wellbeing throughout such ordeals must be very difficult, and it is no surprise how these additional factors can impact negatively upon one’s emotional state. It is also important to consider the fact that it’s not only the athletes who face these challenges but also the people who officiate the matches too.

What kind of issues do they face?

Recently, the scientific literature has shown that professional footballers as well as competitive athletes might be confronted during their career (including transitioning out of sport) with up to 640 distinct stressors that could induce symptoms of various mental health difficulties.

These sport-specific stressors are divided into four main categories: (1) leadership and personnel issues (adverse coach’s behaviour and attitudes, conflict with coach, dealing with media and spectators, governing bodies, etc.), (2) logistical and environmental issues (poor travel and accommodation arrangements, adverse weather conditions, poor facilities and equipment, etc.), (3) cultural and team issues (adverse teammates’ behaviour and attitudes, lack of support, poor communication, etc.) and (4) performance and personal issues (decreased performances, injuries, etc.).

What can they do to remain focused and happy?

We can look to help athletes maintain their wellbeing and focus by implementing several things. Work is being done on improving mental health literacy to athletes all over the country. Doing so will provide young athletes the ability to speak about their difficulties and look to find solutions. Another is to selectively work individually with athletes, and to create a tailored developmental program that can identify personal goals and look to implement a process by which they can acquire abilities and skills to achieve them.

Looking to find more information?

For additional information on how mental health is related to sport, please check out the following links.

If you feel you need additional support you can contact bMindful Psychology on 0161 510 0111 or visit our website at bMindful psychology – a specialist psychology service with particular expertise in children and young people.

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