High-performing athletes are often viewed as having a celebrity-like status. Their strength, determination, hard work ethics, and incredible sporting abilities make them seem almost superhuman. Perhaps it has something to do with the Olympics being rooted in Greek mythology.
Nevertheless, athletes are often put on pedestals. They are required to perform at the highest level and to not show or admit weakness. Of course, it depends on the kind of weakness. For example, high-performing athletes who sprain an ankle or break a bone are given time to heal without question. If anything, we admire them, even more, when they are injured as it shows us the lengths they will go to for their athleticism.
Mental health hits differently. In the world of sport, there is a lot of stigma surrounding this subject. Those who struggle with their mental health are often branded as ‘not being fit to compete at the highest level’. This leads to many athletes hiding their struggles in the fear of losing their career, which only aggravates the issue.
The Importance of Mental Health Awareness
Mental health issues have always affected athletes. However, the topic was not widely discussed until Simone Biles withdrew from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics on grounds of mental health struggles.
Many admired her bravery and applauded her honesty. Her admittance to her mental health struggles helped open a whole new conversation into mental health and exposed the severe pressures many high-performing athletes face.
Below we have listed some of these pressures.
Stress is something we are all familiar with. However, high-performing athletes are under significant pressure to perform well. Many athletes deal with perfectionist mindsets, strict training schedules, pressure from coaches, intense competitions between teammates, and high expectations from fans.
The stress of athletics and competition can serve as a pressure cooker for athletes, causing mental health struggles to bubble away under the surface until they can’t hide their struggles any longer. At this point, many high-performing athletes seek professional treatment from centres that specialize in stress rehabilitation.
Athletes are more prone to eating disorders than most people as they undergo intense physical conditioning to achieve the right body weight and shape for competition. This fixation on physical fitness and also the pressures of competing can cause athletes to develop eating disorders.
High-performing athletes have extremely strict and demanding training schedules. They are often training every day of the week for very long hours. This requires a lot of sacrifice; from getting the right amount of sleep to spending time with friends and family. As time passes, the intense training and ‘lack of a life’ outside of the competition can cause many athletes to experience burnout.
As you can see there are numerous causes of mental health struggles in high-performing athletes. According to Athletes for Hope, “among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.”
Just because athletes are competing in the Olympics or training to break a world record does not make them immune to mental health struggles.
5 mental wellbeing practices for high-performing athletes
Build Resilience Through Self-Care
We know, self-care is a bit of a buzzword but self-care matters. It’s important for looking after your mental health and wellbeing. Athletes performing at all levels must build mental resilience through self-care, something that is often neglected because all your free time is taken up with training and competitions, barely leaving any time for rest and recovery.
However, just as it takes time, hard work, and determination to build up your strength for competing, the same is true for strengthening your mental wellbeing. It takes practice. It takes time out. It takes self-care.
The more you prioritize looking after yourself, the more resilient you will be.
Spend Time with Your Loved Ones
As an athlete, you often dedicate all your time to training and competitions in order to reach your goal. While this is admirable, it can lead to burnout, stress, and worsening mental health symptoms. If you want to perform at your best for both yourself and your team, you need to take time out to rest.
Spending time with your loved ones is a great way to take your mind off any sporting pressures and relax. In fact, according to Athlete Assessments, “a 75 year-long Harvard study reveals that authentic, honest and reliable relationships are the source of happiness, physical and mental health [….] Specifically, the study showed that having someone you can rely upon helps your nervous systems relax, your brain stays healthy and reduces emotional stress and pain.”
As an athlete, it is important to prioritize time spent with people who make you happy. Doing this will help you enjoy better mental health and wellbeing and could even boost your athletic performance.
Manage Your Stress
Effective stress management is something we could all benefit from. Everyone experiences pressure on their lives, whether it’s from work, friends and family, mental health struggles, or the pressures of being an athlete. And while a certain amount of stress is helpful for getting us out of bed in the morning, too much stress circling around our bodies can be harmful.
One of the best ways to manage stress is to adhere to regular daily patterns.
In a funny sort of way, athletes’ training schedules can be helpful for this as they let athletes know what to expect. Eating well, getting plenty of sleep, writing down your worries, talking to a loved one, and taking things gradually are all important for managing stress successfully.
Train Your Mind
To unlock your full potential as an athlete, you need to train your mind just as much as you are training your body. As BOXROX Editor Caro Kyllmann states, “if you want to unlock your full potential, you’ll expose yourself to the areas you need to work and develop way more than those you are phenomenal at. There’s a huge necessity for humility in sport, and being okay with not being the best today, so you can be better tomorrow.”
Just because you can’t physically see your mind strengthening, like your biceps, that doesn’t mean your efforts aren’t making a difference. Strengthening your mind through daily meditation, mental challenges, eating healthy foods, and getting plenty of sleep are all ways you can further your athletic potential and take control of your mental health.
Seek Professional Support
It’s good to talk when you are struggling. Seeking professional support helps get everything out of your head and out in the open. Being able to talk to a friend or a professional therapist can help to build resilience, manage stress, and improve your mental health and wellbeing.
It is not uncommon for high-performing athletes to feel like they are alone in their struggles.
Not many people perform to Olympic standards in their lifetime. It is a huge achievement, however, it also comes with a lot of pressure. As such, asking for mental health support can feel difficult.
If you take anything from this article, we hope it’s the encouragement that you are not alone. There is professional support available. Even if you feel like you can probably cope, it’s important to speak to someone if only to help maintain your resilience and manage any future stressors in a healthy way.
Final Words on Mental Wellbeing
Whether you are an athlete or not, the state of our physical health has a direct impact on the state of our mental health and vice versa. Therefore, as an athlete, it is important not to prioritize one over the other. If you want to reach your athletic goals, looking after yourself is the first and most important step.
Time Magazine states that, “recognizing when you’re mentally not in the right state to compete is a key part of athletes being more aware of not just their body but their mind as well. And having a support team of coaches and teammates who recognize the importance of that is critical to ensuring that small mental struggles don’t balloon into larger ones that can be more debilitating.”
We hope the tips in this article will help you.
This article was written exclusively for BOXROX by medical journalist Sophie Bishop. With a MSc in Psychology, Sophie is deeply passionate about sharing advice and knowledge on improving mental health and wellbeing. She feels it’s important to discuss issues around anxiety, depression and burnout across a range of sectors and professions.