Mental health in sport is a hugely neglected problem, with athletes often portrayed as invincible superheroes at the epitome of health. In reality, sport can be a minefield for anxiety and depression. So how can we raise awareness of this issue, and what can Wattson Blue do to help you balance your physical and mental well-being?
Professional athletes often feel external pressure from coaches, sponsors and fans, alongside strong internal pressures to perform. They have a tendency to base their self-worth off their sporting achievement and to develop an unhealthy perfectionist attitude.1 A recent study found that 47.8% of elite athletes in Great Britain met the cut-off markers for anxiety or depression.2
These psychological issues have a direct impact on athletic performance. Mental fatigue has been proven to impair physical output in humans,3 be it in training, at work or even socially. There are also changes in muscle fibre recruitment, with fatigue resulting in greater glycogen (carbohydrate) utilization.4 What’s more, a 2013 study found strong links between performance failure and depression.5 On the flip side, athletes such as Marshall Plumlee and Kobe Bryant have linked their performance to mental well-being techniquessuch as mindfulness.6
Whilst there is still a stigma surrounding mental health issues in sport, as studies demonstrate that athletes are much more reluctant than non-athletes to seek counselling,7 growing public awareness means there is hope for change. An increasing number of professional athletes are coming forward to talk about their experiences, including Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Victoria Pendleton. Phelps said of his issues, “I still go through times that are very challenging. I do break down and maybe have a bad day, where I’m not in a good mental state. I understand that. It’s who I am. I guess it will always be something that’s a part of me.”8 The UK government has initiated an action plan aimed at raising awareness of mental health problems amongst athletes. This includes training coaches to pick up on key signs of mental health problems, as well as teaching them how they can act to promote mental health.
Making mental health part of your daily life
Psychological issues are not limited to professional athletes. Many amateur athletes face similar difficulties as they try to juggle work, social, family and training commitments.
At Wattson Blue, we believe that the best way to identify such problems is to actively monitor each athlete’s physical and mental well-being. Most coaches recognize that an individual needs to follow a personalised training plan and have their progress monitored in order to achieve peak performance, but this doesn’t always take well-being into account. If an athlete can skip a high intensity session due to a small niggle, why shouldn’t they take a day off when mentally drained from external factors such as work or family commitments?9
In addition to raising awareness and promoting good mental health, such monitoring should enable each athlete to maximise their training response and readiness for training and competition.
Wattson Blue achieves this through simple but validated tools such as HRV and subjective questionnaires.10 We believe these non-invasive measures 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.
We need to recognise that an athlete can break world records whilst still looking after their mental health.
In fact, we 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. Physical, social, psychological and emotional well-being are intrinsically linked in human health. When these factors are aligned, individuals can achieve what they set out to accomplish.
We have come a long way in the last few years, but we need to continue to raise awareness and promote good mental health, especially amongst young athletes.
We believe this will allow athletes to become healthier, fitter and happier. This is our mission at WATTSON BLUE, and we hope all coaches and athletes can get behind it.
- Appleton PR, Hill AP. Perfectionism and athlete burnout in junior elite athletes: the mediating role of motivation regulations. J Clin Sport Psychol. 2012;6(2):129–145.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Schwenk TL. The stigmatisation and denial of mental illness in athletes. Br J Sports Med. 2000 Feb 1;34(1):4-5.
- 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.
- 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.