Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health issues compared with the general pollution? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole addresses this and other related questions.

Mental Health Challenges for Athletes
Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

As this previous article suggests at Condor Performance we consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.

Mental Health is ‘the condition of the mind’ as it relates to the individual and their ability to function. Genuine mental health issues will most likely have an impact across a number of aspects of the sufferer’s life.

So the severity of the mental illness is related to how they function as a person interacting with their society. If this person is an elite athlete then of course it might impact on their performances. However, it’s likely to hinder them in a number of other areas as well. By way of an example let’s consider a competitive athlete who has clinical depression. This serious mental challenge may well decrease their motivation to train in their chosen sport. But if it’s a genuine Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) then their motivation will be down across most (all) areas of their life not just their sporting commitments.

The most extreme cases result in the sufferer being institutionalised. For example, having to spend time in either a hospital or prison.

Sporting Mental Toughness, on the other hand, doesn’t work like that. It’s much more likely to be confined to performance aspects only. Let’s use the example of a team sport such as volleyball. One of the subcategories of Sporting Mental Toughness (SMT) is Unity (cohesion, group dynamics, culture). It’s very possible that the lack of team unity experienced by a volleyball team has no adverse affects away from training and games.

Mental Issues Common In Sport

If you’re looking for some cold, hard facts about mental health issues common in sport I have added a couple of articles to the bottom of this article. But this is how I see it. Athletes are human too so as humans they are susceptible to all the normal psychological risks of the general population. However, the world in which they find themselves might increase the chances of facing certain mental issues.

One great example is stress. Eloquently described in the below TEDx video by volleyballer Victoria Garrick. High performance circles are breeding grounds for stress. This is especially true for those involved in low or non-paying sports. The demands of training and competing on top of a job and/or study can be really stressful.

A recent Ted Talk about The Mental Health Challenges faced by Athletes.

There are some excellent questions being debated at the moment around all of this. One is ‘surely everyone would want to be mentally tougher not just performers?’ Not really. First, building genuine mental toughness is very hard. So, although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.

An Analogy

Think of it as being similar to physical health and physical strength. Everyone could try and work towards being able to lift 150 kgs but how useful is it for most of us? Where is the ‘return on investment’? Maybe using the equivalent training time to practice mindfulness would be more sensible. But if you are a weight lifter, rugby player, bodyguard or defensive tackle – for example – then developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas. If you’re a librarian on the other hand, not so much. No disrespect to librarians intended. I am sure many librarians are elite performers in their field. But upper body strength is not that beneficial in pursuing librarian excellence.

Developing Mental Toughness works the same. Although everybody would probably be happy to process extraordinarily levels of focus (for example) is it worth investing the time required to get there if you’re never really going to need it?

Some recent publications have asked the question ‘Are Mental Toughness and Mental Health Contradictory Concepts in Elite Sport?’. In other words, do increasing levels of mental toughness have a negative impact on mental health? My contribution to this discussion would be as followers.

No, unless the individual is mentally ill and chooses to only improve their mental toughness. This is like the weightlifter ignoring their broken wrist and continuing to benchpress anyway.

What Does The Data Tell Us?

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental issues compared with the general pollution? Luckily, work has been done to answer this question. As mentioned in this excellent article by Joshua Sebbens, Peter Hassmén, Dimity Crisp and Kate Wensley “A study of elite athletes in Australia reported almost half were experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, and the proportion meeting caseness cutoffs for mental illness were deemed comparable to community data (Gulliver et al., 2015). More broadly, Rice et al. (2016) conducted a systematic narrative review and also suggested the prevalence of mental illness in elite athletes was comparable to the general population”.

I believe this article confirms the values that my colleagues and I at Condor Performance have on this topic on the right ones. In summary;

  • Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same nor is one a “part” of the other.
  • Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not opposites whereby when one improves the other goes down and vice versa.
  • Keeping an eye on mental health needs to be part of all sporting programs.
  • Improving mental health has a direct benefit to performance.
  • Free mental health advice should come from anyone. Paid mental health advice should only come from those with recognised qualifications.

It’s Not Just About Problems

The Positive Psychology movement exists because many psychologists wanted to do more than just fix mental issues. Traditional psychotherapy tends to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and that’s it. It’s like leaving someone mid way through their journey.

Sport psychology and her focus mental toughness were, in many ways, the original positive psychologies.

Additional Reading Related To Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

Sport Psychology – A Brief History

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the history of sport psychology and points out a few missed opportunities from the 100 year story so far.

Coleman Griffith

It was Coleman Griffith (right) who really put sport psychology on the map. His two classic publications in the 1920s are ‘must reads’ for anyone interested in History of Sport Psychology.

I like my history, I always have. One of the most interesting modules that I did during my psychology undergraduate degree at The University of Leeds in the late 90s was ‘The History of Psychotherapy’. From memory this course didn’t look back at different types of psychology. Instead it just covered general trends from the past. This led me to do my own research into the history of sport psychology as we know it today.

The Pioneers of Sport Psychology

The real origins of sport psychology had very little to do with traditional psychotherapy. In the early days, sport psychology was almost entirely about performance enhancement and building on existing strengths.

The real start of sport psychology as a specialisation was almost exactly 100 years ago. In 1921 baseballer Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University in order to try and find out what made him so good. Many of the findings proved that his excellent boiled down to mental superiorities more than technical or physical ones. Sport psychology as a field, a specialty was born, when the below article was published.

A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted a number of studies that focused on how to optimise the performance of American footballer during training.

The Psychology of Coaching

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. For good reason he’s regarded as the father of modern sport psychology. I actually own a first edition of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’. I stumbled across a copy in an antique store about 20 years ago. This book is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about working one on one with sporting coaches.

There is still a lot of hesitation amongst sporting coaches about working directly with a psychologist. Yet those who ‘give it a crack’ tend to be richly rewarded. If you are a sporting coach a good way to ‘dip your toes in the water’ is by completing our MTQ-C online.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

It should be noted that a close look at the History of Sport Psychology shows very little interest in exercise psychology.

Pioneers of sport psychology were mainly focused on performance. From their point of view, their population of interest was already very physically active. Any ‘advice’ pertaining to physical training should come from experts in fields such as exercise physiology.

All this changed between 1930 and 1960 when exercise and physical activity were formally added to the definition of sport psychology. Hence the more common modern description of ‘sport and exercise psychology’.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that this was the first collective error of the profession. I will explain by way of some examples.

Exercise psychology is essentially (should be) a branch of health psychology. It’s all about using psychological methods to increase physical activity. The typical client of an exercise psychologist might be a sedentary adult. Someone who has failed to become active after seeing an exercise physiologist.

Sport psychology has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of mental challenge. Our clients are already physical very active, they are anything but sedentary.

The Importance of The Right Labels

For a long time I have argued that the ideal label of the profession is performance psychology. Sport psychology would then become a subdiscipline of performance psychology. This is to recognise the fact that “performance” and “performing” extend well beyond elite sport.

Sport and performance psychology / psychologists are terms getting more use nowadays. But for me, this is just repeating. Sport is a type of performance so the word performance alone should be enough. That’s my opinion – what do you think?

Q1: What do YOU believe should be the correct spelling if we all had to agree on JUST one and then stick with that moving forward?
Q2: Which of the below best describes your role? I am a ...
226 votes

More Recent History

From 1970 to the early 2000s, the professional enjoyed increasing recognition and growth across most of the developed world. In Australia, this saw an all-time high of four Masters program in ‘Sport and Exercise Psychology’. Boosted by the Sydney Olympics in 2000 Australia was a good place to study sport psychology 20 years ago.

For this very reason, I applied for a place on the Masters of Psychology (Sport and Exercise) at the University of Western Sydney intake of 2004. And I was thrilled upon being accepted despite it meaning I’d need to move halfway across the world.

Little did I know at the time that I would be joining the very last group to ever complete that particular program. The decline was about to start.

Did you know that our own Michelle Pain was one of the early pioneers of sport psychology in Australia?

The Decline

In 2020 there is now only one Sport and Exercise Psychology masters program remaining in Australia. So it begs the question what happened? More importantly what can we learn from the decline?

Like I said the first ‘dropped ball’ was spreading ourselves too thinly in trying to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold.

In 2006 Medicare introduced a two-tier system for psychologists. The policy implies that clinical psychologists were better a psychology work. The out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less compared with all other types of psychologist.

This legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other programs.

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

In recent years sport psychology has started to really embrace the importance of mental health and wellbeing. I am glad about this but we need to be very, very careful.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement origins. These include mental skills training and coaching psychology.

In 50 years from now – if the profession still exists – what will the answers to these questions be? What do sport psychologists do? And what are sport psychologists really know for?

Will the answers be …

  • they help athletes with mental health and wellbeing challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training’ or will it be
  • they mainly help sporting and non-sporting performers to improve in their chosen sport or performance area and introduce mental health interventions for non-critical issues if and when required

Is It Possible For Us To Bounce Back?

Will we learn from our mistakes and bounce back? Can we learn from the History of Sport Psychology to improve the future of the profession? This sport psychologist thinks it’s possible. However, only with some major structural changes. And that, my friends, will be the topic of a later blog post; Sport Psychology – Looking To The Future.