As an athlete, your state of mind can have a huge impact on your sporting performance, but this aspect of your well-being is often not properly addressed. Here, we highlight some expert advice from the IOC Mental Health Working Group that can help you recognise and cope with any problems you may be facing.
- The IOC and its international experts published a landmark paper in May 2019 addressing mental health problems in elite athletes.
- The IOC Mental Health Working Group developed a list of recommended preventive tips for athletes’ mental health.
- The following advice addresses a number of topics related to athletes’ mental health to help you on and off the field of play.
Your mind is very powerful and sometimes it can help just to make yourself look calm and in control. The mind and body have repetitive patterns of thoughts, emotions, facial expressions, postures and movements that are associated with positive stress control and life balance.
Identify your stressors
Depressive symptoms are common at various times in the lives of elite athletes. These symptoms may follow difficult events like the loss of a significant relationship or person, competitive failure, serious injury or illness, family conflict, or even positive events like competitive success, national recognition, or participation in major events such as the Olympic Games. The most common symptoms are sadness, crying, irritability, sleep or appetite changes, pessimism, loss of pleasure, guilt, self-dislike, sense of failure, fatigue and/or thoughts of self-harm. These symptoms are universal and need a voice. The simple act of telling someone close to you or meeting with a physician or other mental health provider can bring you relief and hope. You just need to take the first step.
Look after yourself
Looking after yourself is a key part of having good mental well-being. Part of being an elite athlete is to push the boundaries – and not just physically, but mentally. Over time, this can wear down your mental well-being. It’s important to know your limits and to build good self-care routines into your life, which includes getting enough sleep and having enjoyable downtime.
Prioritise your sleep and improve by up to 20%
If you could improve your sports performance by 20%, would you do it? Of course you would. And improving your sleep may be the way to do it. Research has shown that getting enough sleep is important for performing at your best, while a lack of sleep could also increase your risk of injury. That’s why sleep should be an important part of your training programme – just as good nutrition and hydration are. The mind and body need high quality, continuous sleep to reset and reboot their energy systems. Athletes typically need more than eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, enabling you to shift back and forth between light sleep, deep sleep and dream stages.
Be social at the right time
How much of your day do you spend on social media? Reading comments and posts about yourself can be very stressful, especially when you are under such immense pressure to perform well. With recent research suggesting that using social media before and during athletic competitions is actually associated with higher rates of performance anxiety, it may be best to steer clear of the online trolls altogether.
Play an active role in promoting safe sport
Safe sport is your right as an athlete, as outlined in the Athletes’ Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities. Many athletes don’t recognise that they could be suffering abuse from their coaches and other members of their entourage. For example, psychological abuse – defined as deliberate and repeated behaviour that causes mental harm to the athlete – might occur when a coach makes an athlete feel that they are worthless, inadequate, or only valued because of their athletic performance. Physical abuse – such as punching, beating, kicking and biting – and sexual abuse are also issues that some athletes can unfortunately face. If you have any concern about possible abuse, talk to your identified safeguarding officer or a trusted physician.
Conclusion: Be a role model
Mental health problems are not uncommon among athletes; in fact, one in three of us are likely to experience them to a varying degree at some time. If you have overcome your own mental health struggles, then acting as a role model could help prevent others from suffering similar issues. You can be a good role model by ‘normalising’ the mental health symptoms that occur, challenging negative stereotypes and/or language, and promoting respectful behaviour. These can all lead to mentally healthy sporting environments and prevent other athletes from struggling with negative experiences.
Read More: Olympic.org