Athletes Need to Talk About their Mental Health…It Matters


There is a new phrase you are likely to hear more of around sports clubs in coming years — mental health literacy.

It is the idea of increasing the ability of players, parents and coaches to recognise the signs of mental illness among people in their club, and to be able to start a conversation and point to resources that might help.

Mental wellness is not something that has been on the radar of clubs, but several high-profile athletes have revealed their battles with mental health issues, and sports administrators are looking for ways to act.

Common sports phrases such as ‘mental toughness’ needs to be re-examined.

Putting a tag like “mentally tough” on someone because they are dealing with situations, with crises, with demands, better than someone else just means that the person who is coping better has been afforded the opportunity to develop a skill set that enables them to do so.

Don’t label the person who is struggling as not tough enough, work with them to develop the skill set to manage their physical and emotional resources to the best of their ability.

Adaptability, resilience, the capacity for problem solving — these are all skill sets that can be taught.

Athletes who may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder because of unhelpful thinking habits that trigger physical symptoms, and how coaches, teachers and parents can help those people recognise the difference between productive and unproductive worries and thoughts by encouraging cognitive learning.

For instance, young people who are anxious about learning new skills for fear of making mistakes and being criticized need to have constructive positive reinforcement, even if the whole movement is not correct, at least focus on the components that are.

Athletes learn to self-correct, so to encourage this thinking, whilst learning new skills you should be asked to self-evaluate what part of the movement feels correct and why, and what part of the skill needs fine-tuning and how, rather than just being told what to do.

The learning and use of these mental skills to manage stress, develop life skills and build resilience can provide the toolkit you need to overcome potential negative thoughts or anxiety. For teenagers who are going through a time of physical and emotional change it is important to understand that mental energy, just like physical energy, is a limited resource.

There are things we think, feel and do that deplete our mental energy stores and there are things we can think, feel and do that help to refill them. Exercise in general is a mental energy refueler and we all need to keep on moving for good mental and physical health. Excessive use of technology is an energy consumer and can create a frenetic headspace. Individuals who spend more than two hours per day on leisure screen time may be at risk of broken up sleep cycles and emotional exhaustion.

You should keep a mood diary to reflect on mood changes and the factors that contribute to those changes, so positive changes can be made that help you manage your emotional energy and mental health.

If you are injured or dealing with missing out on selection the importance of keeping exercising in some form because it regulates the body’s feel good thoughts and without it many may slip into feelings of anxiety and/or depression. It is important to work with coaches on a clear direction on what to work on to improve the chances future selection so you can chart and monitor improvement.

The community nature of sports clubs often places them in ideal positions to notice potential at-risk individuals who may be vulnerable to mental health difficulties and provide avenues for support. Having an open, collaborative and high communication environment is really important when trying to increase mental health literacy and build a culture that fosters positives and allows athletes to openly talk about anxiety or mental health concerns. Sharing these potential issues is a sign of strength not weakness. That is a key message to be portrayed.

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