Mental well-being and athletic performance go hand in hand.

The modern athlete. The social competitor.

Physical, social, psychological and emotional well-being are intrinsically linked in human health. When these factors are aligned, individuals can achieve performances they set out to accomplish. The modern lifestyle is fast paced and driven by innumerable multimedia avenues for monitoring. As such, many of us use different tools to track performances and ultimately make comparisons. Strava is a wonderful example of a simple tool that has grown to a level that it now commands an integral part of the day to day life of the social, recreational, amateur and elite athlete.

However, with the success of every performance or training monitoring tool comes the drive to achieve a new best; run further, cycle faster, swim better, and yet there are no good tools that incorporate science of elite athletes into the lives of a Strava or Training Peaks user to assess and quantify psychological and mental health practices of the user.

Mental health in athletes

As an amateur athlete, when was the last time you considered how your mental health is impacting your performance and response to training? Have you wondered whether your performance improvements are affected by your other commitments?

Mental health among athletes is a hugely neglected problem1. Professional athletes often feel external pressure from coaches, sponsors and fans, alongside strong internal pressures to perform well, often basing their self-worth off their sporting achievement. This image of invincibility has significantly contributed to a stigma attached to mental health amongst athletes.

Studies have shown that athletes are much more reluctant to seek help for their mental health compared to non-athletes14.

A recent study found that 47.8% of elite athletes in Great Britain met the cut-off markers for anxiety/depression5. It is a remarkable figure considering that, unlike a typical amateur athlete, these athletes are not chasing numbers on a weekend, most are not working to fund their psychological release mechanism. They are not juggling travel time, training hours and family life.

These mental health issues directly impact athletic performance.

A 2013 study found that among top performing elite athletes in a cohort, performance failure was significantly associated with depression6. In addition many athletes, such as Marshall Plumlee and Kobe Bryant have linked their performance to mental well-being techniques such as mindfulness3.

It has been shown that mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans12, be it in training, at work or even socially with time of day19. There are also changes in muscle fibre recruitment with fatigue resulting in greater glycogen (carbohydrate) utilization10. More recently, other athletic challenges, such as pacing strategies are also have been found to be influenced by psychophysiological factors20.

Mental health challenges are not limited to professional athletes alone. Many of us amateur athletes who try and manage our work and social commitments alongside our training also face similar challenges15.

Making mental health part of our day to day

At WATTSON BLUE we believe the first step to catching any problems is active monitoring of each athlete’s overall physical and mental well-being. Most coaches (and athletes) recognize that for an individual to get the most out of their training, they need to follow a personalized training plan, and monitor the athletes response to training over time11.

Hence most of us complete tests, such as FTP tests, to allow us to personalise our training zones and use power meters, heart rate monitor and GPS trackers to monitor our performance over time, while disregarding our well-being, such as sleep duration and qualityand indications of whether we are in an optimal or overreached state7.

We believe that in the same way that it is acceptable for an athlete to skip a high intensity session if they are showing early signs of a cold or injury, it should also be acceptable, and in fact encouraged, for an athlete to, for example, reduce training intensity or take a day off if they are mentally drained from external factors such as work or family commitments18.

In addition to raising awareness and promoting good mental health amongst athletes, such monitoring should enable each athlete to maximise their training response and readiness for training and competition.

At WATTSON BLUE, this is done through simple but validated measures such as HRV and early morning subjective questionnaires9. We believe such non-invasive measures, alongside simple engaging interface can help athletes identify factors that influence their performance, while allowing them to look forward to their next race or Strava PR with a sound knowledge of how they are setting off on a particular day.

Final words

We need to recognise that an athlete can break world records while looking after their mental health.

We, in fact, believe that athletes can achieve higher levels of performance, if they monitor and improve their mental health in the same way as they look after their physical well-being.

In recent years, we have come a long way from the times when athletes were considered invincible superheroes. An increasing number of professional athletes are coming forward to talk about their experiences, including very recently Tyson Fury and Victoria Pendleton. We need to continue to raise awareness and promote good mental health, especially amongst our young athletes.

We believe this will lead to not just happier athletes, but also better performing ones. This is our missions at WATTSON BLUE, and one we hope all coaches and athletes can get behind.

Publication bibliography
  1. Bauman, N. James (2015): The stigma of mental health in athletes: are mental toughness and mental health seen as contradictory in elite sport? In British journal of sports medicine. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-095570.
  2. Blumenstein, Boris; Orbach, Iris (2018): Periodization of psychological preparation within the training process. In International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 4, pp. 1–11. DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2018.1478872.
  3. Brown, Daniel J.; Fletcher, David (2016): Effects of Psychological and Psychosocial Interventions on Sport Performance: A Meta-Analysis. In Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.). DOI: 10.1007/s40279-016-0552-7.
  4. Dickinson, Rebecca K.; Hanrahan, Stephanie J. (2009): An Investigation of Subjective Sleep and Fatigue Measures for Use with Elite Athletes. In Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology 3 (3), pp. 244–266. DOI: 10.1123/jcsp.3.3.244.
  5. Foskett, R. L.; Longstaff, F. (2018): The mental health of elite athletes in the United Kingdom. In Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 21 (8), pp. 765–770. DOI: 10.1016/j.jsams.2017.11.016.
  6. Hammond, Thomas; Gialloreto, Christie; Kubas, Hanna; Hap Davis, Henry (2013): The prevalence of failure-based depression among elite athletes. In Clinical journal of sport medicine : official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine 23 (4), pp. 273–277. DOI: 10.1097/JSM.0b013e318287b870.
  7. HAUSSWIRTH, Christophe; LOUIS, JULIEN; Aubry, Anaël; Bonnet, Guillaume; Duffield, Rob; Le Meur, Yann (2014): Evidence of disturbed sleep and increased illness in overreached endurance athletes. In Medicine and science in sports and exercise 46 (5), pp. 1036–1045. DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000177.
  8. King, Gillian; McDougall, Janette; DeWit, David; Hong, Sungjin; Miller, Linda; Offord, David et al. (2007): Pathways to Children’s Academic Performance and Prosocial Behaviour. Roles of physical health status, environmental, family, and child factors. In International Journal of Disability, Development and Education 52 (4), pp. 313–344. DOI: 10.1080/10349120500348680.
  9. Le Meur, Yann; HAUSSWIRTH, Christophe; Natta, Françoise; Couturier, Antoine; Bignet, Frank; Vidal, Pierre Paul (2013): A multidisciplinary approach to overreaching detection in endurance trained athletes. In Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985) 114 (3), pp. 411–420. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01254.2012.
  10. Linssen, W. H.; Stegeman, D. F.; Joosten, E. M.; Binkhorst, R. A.; Merks, M. J.; ter Laak, H. J.; Notermans, S. L. (1991): Fatigue in type I fiber predominance: a muscle force and surface EMG study on the relative role of type I and type II muscle fibers. In Muscle & nerve 14 (9), pp. 829–837. DOI: 10.1002/mus.880140906.
  11. Main, Luana; Landers, Grant (2012): Overtraining or Burnout. A Training and Psycho-Behavioural Case Study. In International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching 7 (1), pp. 23–32. DOI: 10.1260/1747-9541.7.1.23.
  12. Marcora, Samuele M.; Staiano, Walter; Manning, Victoria (2009): Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. In Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985) 106 (3), pp. 857–864. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.91324.2008.
  13. Mujika, Iñigo; Halson, Shona; Burke, Louise M.; Balagué, Gloria; Farrow, Damian (2018): An Integrated, Multifactorial Approach to Periodization for Optimal Performance in Individual and Team Sports. In International journal of sports physiology and performance 13 (5), pp. 538–561. DOI: 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0093.
  14. Mumford, George (2015): The mindful athlete. Secrets to pure performance. Berkeley California: Parallax Press.
  15. Murphy, Shane M.; Fleck, Steven J.; Dudley, Gary; Callister, Robin (1990): Psychological and performance concomitants of increased volume training in elite athletes. In Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 2 (1), pp. 34–50. DOI: 10.1080/10413209008406419.
  16. Roberts, Spencer Stuart Haines; Teo, Wei-Peng; Warmington, Stuart Anthony (2018): Effects of training and competition on the sleep of elite athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. In British journal of sports medicine. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099322.
  17. Thorpe, Robin T.; Atkinson, Greg; Drust, Barry; Gregson, Warren (2017): Monitoring Fatigue Status in Elite Team-Sport Athletes: Implications for Practice. In International journal of sports physiology and performance 12 (Suppl 2), S227-S234. DOI: 10.1123/ijspp.2016-0434.
  18. Tranaeus, U.; Ivarsson, A.; Johnson, U. (2015): Evaluation of the effects of psychological prevention interventions on sport injuries. A meta-analysis. In Science & Sports 30 (6), pp. 305–313. DOI: 10.1016/j.scispo.2015.04.009.
  19. Trine, M. R.; Morgan, W. P. (1995): Influence of time of day on psychological responses to exercise. A review. In Sports Med 20 (5), pp. 328–337. DOI: 10.2165/00007256-199520050-00004.
  20. Venhorst, Andreas; Micklewright, Dominic P.; Noakes, Timothy D. (2018): The Psychophysiological Determinants of Pacing Behaviour and Performance During Prolonged Endurance Exercise: A Performance Level and Competition Outcome Comparison. In Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) 48 (10), pp. 2387–2400. DOI: 10.1007/s40279-018-0893-5.
  21. Zhang, Chun-Qing; Si, Gangyan; Chung, Pak-Kwong; Gucciardi, Daniel F. (2016): Mindfulness and Burnout in Elite Junior Athletes. The Mediating Role of Experiential Avoidance. In Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 28 (4), pp. 437–451. DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2016.1162223.