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Mental Health in Elite Sport

Birmingham City University (BCU) academic, Laura Hodgson, who leads the module on Sport and Exercise Psychology on our BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Science degree has spoken to us about how elite sport can have an effect and impact on athletes’ mental health.

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games having now drawn to a close, like most, I am fully absorbed in the current Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Watching the world’s greatest athletes perform on the international stage brings joy, excitement and entertainment into many households across the world.

As a spectator, I am often left in awe of the tremendous skill, ability and level of excellence such athletes display. Yet, competing at elite and professional levels of sport places many demands and pressures on athletes, all of which have the potential to negatively impact their mental health. Such demands include intense training loads and stressors related to performance, alongside media and public attention, social media profiles, financial concerns, sponsorship deals, and potential injury. In fact, the prevalence of mental illnesses among elite athletes has been found to be similar to that of the general population (Rice et al., 2016), highlighting the importance of mental health within sport.

Unfortunately, few elite athletes seek professional support for their mental health. Research has found a number of barriers associated with seeking help, including a negative stigma and athletes feeling embarrassed to ask for support (Gulliver et al., 2012). Recently, a number of high profile athletes have shone a light on the importance of mental health and have spoken publicly about their own personal experiences and challenges.This open discussion, especially on such a global platform, may have a positive impact in helping to normalise and encourage discussions around mental health, with the potential to reduce the negative stigma that is often apparent.

Hearing such testimonials from athletes may promote openness and help to encourage other athletes to seek support. But in addition to this, sports organisations have a responsibility to create and maintain environments that support their athletes’ mental health. Some suggestions for how sports organisations may foster supportive environments include being open to discussing mental health, aiming to identify and remove barriers while reducing stigma, and providing educational initiatives for athletes, coaches and other organisational members (Henriksen et al., 2020).

With athlete mental health becoming an increasingly prominent topic area, a greater focus is being directed towards mental health promotion. It is hoped that continued work in this area will deepen our current knowledge and understanding of athlete mental health and help to further inform applied practice so that athletes can be best supported. 

In recent years’ in particular, the focus on athletes’ mental health has been increased and is seen now with as much importance as their physical health for ultimate performance and wellbeing. At BCU we are proud to include modules such as, Sport and Exercise Psychology within our BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Science degree.

 

References:

Gulliver, A., Griffiths, K. M. and Christensen, H. (2012) Barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking for young elite athletes: a qualitative study. BMC Psychiatry, 12(1), pp. 157-170.

Henriksen, K., Schinke, R., Moesch, K., McCann, S., Parham, W. D., Larsen, C. H. and Terry, P. (2020) Consensus statement on improving the mental health of high performance athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(5), pp. 553-560.

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.

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