Mental Health in Sport
It is common knowledge that physical activity and exercise have a positive effect on wellbeing but despite this, athletes still succumb to mental health challenges. Recent news stories about high-profile sportspeople have brought attention to this issue with research showing that athletes at all levels can be affected.
The demands on young athletes can become overwhelming:
Balancing everything else in life
Often complicated social lives
Changes due to puberty
When it all gets too much, these challenges can lead to conditions like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. But many athletes are hesitant to seek support in part due to a sports culture that prioritises physical strength and resilience over mental wellbeing. They may fear appearing weak, especially to other athletes, as image and ego are all part of the competitive sports game. This particular aspect can be a significant concern for those competing at higher performance levels who may feel they risk non-selection if they are deemed mentally vulnerable. This reluctance to divulge struggles internalises the problems, making the road to recovery more difficult and lonely.
Parents play a powerful role in reducing the likelihood of their athletes experiencing mental health issues. One of the most impactful ways you can help your athlete towards a successful and happy sports career is by providing a positive home environment during childhood and adolescence.
By doing and saying the things that make them feel loved, safe, confident, and courageous they will develop both helpful positive beliefs about themself and others and adopt attitudes that make them less susceptible to mental difficulties throughout life. Being better able to manage their wellbeing will make them more likely to enjoy long-term sporting success and achieve overall happiness.
It is important for parents to be able to recognise when an athlete might be struggling. Neglecting self-care and balance in their sport-life can be common signs, as can becoming withdrawn and showing reduced enjoyment in the things they would normally enjoy.
Addressing any mental health concerns an athlete may have, relating not only to their sport but all areas of life, is essential. Here, communication is key and made possible by your providing a supportive environment where they feel comfortable discussing their concerns and asking for help.
Providing mental health resources and helping them to develop coping strategies can be helpful but there may be scenarios where improvement cannot be achieved ‘in-house’. In these situations, it is essential you seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.
Ultimately, it’s down to all of us but especially parents, to break the stigma and promote mental health awareness, supporting our children towards both physical and mental wellbeing.
Mental health concerns can easily escalate and must, therefore, ALWAYS be taken seriously.
Joe, on his own mental health struggles:
How You Can Help
Make talking about feelings and difficulties ‘normal’. Making them part of your sport-related chat may make these potentially difficult/awkward conversations easier for some athletes, especially teenagers.
Talk freely about mental health to ‘normalise’ the subject.
Asking them how they are doing whilst driving to/from training is a good, tried and tested strategy. You’re watching the road so can’t make eye contact which can help to make these awkward conversations easier for them.
Provide age-appropriate mental health resources.
Help them develop coping strategies.
Never assume ‘they’ll be fine’ and/or underestimate the significance and severity of their struggles. This can be a dangerous strategy. Remember, to them the problems can be real… VERY real.
IMPORTANT: Burnout can impact mental health and should always be taken seriously.
ALWAYS seek professional advice from an accredited healthcare provider for all mental health concerns.
NOTE: Teenagers will often find it hard/impossible to admit they are struggling. Please look out for the warning signs and always trust your parental instincts.
Take Home Point
Parents should always be on the lookout for signs of stress, anxiety, or burnout in their athletes. Be aware that some can hide the fact that they are struggling to cope. Normalise conversations about how they are feeling. Chats during car journies to and from training are a good opportunity as these remove the need for awkward eye contact!
Help them to navigate these difficulties by removing any perceived pressure they may feel to perform and emphasise your desire for them to enjoy their sport above everything else. Always take their concerns seriously and always seek professional help if their anxiety appears to be escalating.
*DISCLAIMER: This content is for guidance only. If you or your athlete need mental health support, we recommend you seek help from an accredited health professional.
Our content is supported by the following evidence-based research:
Haraldsdottir, K. and Watson, A.M., 2021. Psychosocial impacts of sports-related injuries in adolescent athletes. Current sports medicine reports, 20(2), pp.104-108.
Rice, S.M., Purcell, R., De Silva, S., Mawren, D., McGorry, P.D. and Parker, A.G., 2016. The mental health of elite athletes: A narrative systematic review. Sports medicine, 46, pp.1333-1353.