The Impact of a High Performance Environment on Athlete’s Mental Health
As we move forward through our exploration about mental health and its effects, we want to look at the specific relationship between mental health and athletics. Mental health in athletics has increased in conversation over the last 5 years, specifically among elite athletes. You may have seen high profile athletes discussed in the media, such as Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Kevin Love who have graciously shared their story to begin normalizing the conversation around athlete’s mental health. Not only are athletes discussing their mental health stories but support staff such as trainers, coaches, and family members also discuss the impact of athletics on their mental health. If you are not familiar with any of these stories, check out the latest player’s tribune article Do Not Disturb. Learning the lessons of those that have shared their mental health journey has brought light to the impact sport has on one’s mental health, but leads us to explore a bigger question: what in the sport environment is continuing to impact athletes and others mental well-being?
One large contributing factor linked to the struggle between athletics and mental health is the massive amounts of pressure put on individuals to perform at the highest level. Pressure begins at such an early age that athletes may never even make it to an elite level. This is highlighted in a recent study which showed that annual youth dropout rates (across all sports) is approximately 35% (Sáez et al., 2021). The number of young folks not returning to sport each year, causes significant concern. Taking a closer look at the sport environment, we see that one of the leading causes of drop out is a lack of fun. Sport becomes tedious when an athlete is not able to manage various forms of pressure. The pressure comes from the athlete themselves, family, friends, coaches, media, fans, teammates, etc. In fact, we may not know one exact source of pressure as the entire environment is shaped around expectations and performance outcomes.
Athletes are high achieving individuals with tendencies to perfect their skill. The stress and impact from external pressures weighs heavily on their mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Sport itself is an outcome-based environment that emphasizes wins and losses. It is essential for athletes to build values that enhance their well-being and life skills. We may not be able to remove the outcome-based culture, but we can shift how we manage the pressure of outcomes.
The pressure to perform can lead to overthinking and decreased performance in the moment. A study examining the effect of chronic stress found sustained stress levels can lead to changes in the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate which in turn has the potential to lead to struggles with mental illness and long-term neurological changes (Popoli et al., 2011). Furthermore, the constant pressure encountered by an athlete can be linked to increased feelings of anxiety as well as increased risk of injury (Penttila, 2021). Research has identified key physiological, mental, and emotional concerns related to the participation in sport. However, it is important to highlight that it is not the participation in sport itself, that is risky. Physical activity is encouraged and has many significant mental health benefits through the movement of one’s body. What is essential to changes is the sport culture itself.
To assist in changing the culture it is essential to look at preventative measures for athletes. We know we cannot change sport from being an outcome based event. Therefore, we need to establish positive strategies to manage pressure situations effectively. Developing coping strategies, focus cues, and practicing mindfulness are a few examples that have been shown to be beneficial when dealing with stress. However, change needs to occur beyond the individual level to better support athletes and coaches’ mental health.
High pressure sport environments can have long term impact on one’s emotional well-being. Burnout is a common experience in high pressure environments that also has the potential to impact athletes’ mental health. Burnout can be caused by the constant stressful demands of athletics as well as a perceived lack of understanding from social support systems (Eklund & Defreese, 2017). Because of the uniqueness of the sports environment, it is common for athletes to feel misunderstood by others and lacking in social support. It is vital to acknowledge and address burnout as it can be extremely detrimental to an athlete’s mental health. It has been shown that there is a correlation between burnout, self-doubt, and perceived ability (Lemyre et al., 2007). Signs of burnout include a lack of motivation, feelings of negativity towards something that used to be positive, and feelings of detachment. To combat feelings of burnout, it can be helpful to look for intrinsic motivation to complete the task rather than motivation from external sources. Additionally, setting boundaries and finding your limits can help lower over exposure to stressful situations and help regain feelings of control which can be beneficial to one’s mental health (Valcour, 2021). If the feelings of burnout become overwhelming, pause, take a moment for yourself, and seek out support from a professional or someone you trust that can understand and empathize with you. One tip to managing burnout is taking a break and engaging in something that brings you joy!
As we examine our original question: what in the sport environment is continuing to impact athletes and others mental well-being? We can summarize and simply say pressure is one of the reason athletes are experiencing mental health concerns. Upon deeper reflection, however, it is more complex. The reality is that sport is not simply good or bad, it is both. Sport itself does not need to change, but those involved in sport need to change. The question may be more simply put: what can we do differently to positively impact athlete’s mental well-being?
Awareness, education, and action are necessary for sports to be a place for entertainment, personal development, and growth. At TOPPS, there are mental health professionals who specialize in working with athletes. If anything discussed in this post resonates with you and your experience, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our staff. For more information on the staff and services provided, click here or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Eklund, R. C., & Defreese, J. D. (2017). Burnout in sport and performance. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.165
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Sáez, I., Solabarrieta, J., & Rubio, I. (2021). Reasons for sports-based physical activity dropouts in university students. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(11), 5721. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18115721
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