Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

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

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

As one of my previous articles suggested I consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.

My definition of Mental Health is roughly ‘the condition of the mind’ as related to the individual, the person regardless of what they do (athlete, baker, candlestick maker). Mental Health is about day-to-day functioning so someone who has ‘a condition of the mind’ that prevents them from functioning and being well (aka well-being) could be described as having a mental health issue (concern, problem, disorder) or being mentally ill. The severity of the mental illness is therefore related to how well they function in the society they live with the most extreme cases being confined to prisons and hospitals.

The Positive Psychology movement was born from the fact that many psychologists were frustrated by the fact that the goal of traditional psychotherapy tended (tends) to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and did (does) little to assist them beyond this point.

I have never regarding the word ‘functioning’ as actually meaning ‘just functioning’. If you use the word in the context of a car – for example – it can and does gets uses to describe vehicles that have nothing wrong with them:

How is your old Mercedes going?

It’s functionally really well – runs like a brand new car.

So there are degrees of functioning whereby the highest ones might be thought of as ‘functioning really well’ in everyday situations. For example, someone who is very happy with most of the main areas of their life – sleep, relationships, work, etc. A ‘normal’ level of functioning might be when one or more of these ‘human’ aspects is not quite as it might be. This can include, for example, individuals whose relationships and sleep are great but they are somewhat stressed about their working situation. This stress is not “clinical” in that they still managed to get to work every day but there is no longer a smile when they walk into the office. They function but there are ‘everyday’ areas that could be improved. 

Finally, there are those who have “stopped” functioning altogether. By ‘stopped functioning’ we are really referring to the fact that many of the daily tasks – such as getting out of bed, eating, talking to others – have become too hard.

But what about if these “people” are performers? What if the person who is only functioning normally is a young athlete currently preparing for her first Grand Final? What if the person who has stopped functioning is a politician or sporting coach?

All of these individuals would benefit from improving both their everyday mental health and – due to what they do – their performance mental toughness as well. In the case of the politician or sporting coach (above) I’d suggest they focus solely on their mental health first as their lack of functioning would render all other “psychology work” untimely.

For the young athlete who is functioning OK (as well as those who are functioning well) then working on both their mental health and mental toughness in tandem can be a nice approach. One of the advantages of being an Australian trained sports psychologist is that I can easily assist my sporting and performance clients with both their mental health and mental toughness (often within the same session)!

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, very hard and although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.

You can learn a lot more about how we balance Mental health and Mental Toughness via our sister program Metuf

You might like to think of it as being similar to physical health (good blood sugar for example) and physical strength (being able to bench press 150 kgs). 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 (both codes), bodyguard, bouncer or defensive tackle (American Football) – for example – developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas.

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 is 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.

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health 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 confirms the position that our sport and performance psychologists have at the moment which in summary is:

  • 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 – not only due to the fact that athletes and coaches are people first – but improved mental health has a direct benefit to performance.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.