One of the best things about being a sport psychologist is that every time you watch sport you can class it as CPD and media interview preparation and feel a little bit smug and a little less guilty (because that to do list is always nagging away). So, hands up I’ve been watching a lot lately. We have had the European Champs, Wimbledon, The Tour de France, The Olympics. A sport lovers dream.

I expected I might get asked some questions by the media on stories that came out from these events – but one story this summer has shone above all others – far above: Mental Health in athletes.

With athletes being more vocal about mental health issues than ever before one of the main questions sports psychs are being asked is: Are mental health problems worse or are athletes just talking about them more?

My answer is both.

Are mental health problems worse?

Quite possibly. The pandemic saw us all lose some of our autonomy, change many habits and routines we relied upon and move much of what we did online; work, family, fitness and social interactions. Athletes lost many of their support systems, preparation competitions, training environments, coping mechanisms and saw the rules of their sports and competitions change. They had to adapt to all this. Many did this very well but it isn’t an easy process and may well have had a negative impact their mental wellbeing and their ability to perform at a high level.

Against this pandemic legacy of course they want to compete: it is who they are and what they do. So they go off to worldwide competitions aiming to perform at the very highest level. This means they have a loud background of pandemic stressors, then some specific athlete stressors added in and topped off with a bunch of competition stressors. Not something many of us would welcome.

Stressors don’t necessarily mean stress through. Stress occurs when we look at the challenge in front of us and feel that we don’t have the capacity or capability to successfully tackle it. So, any time an athlete feels the challenge is bigger than their skills, fitness, preparation or experience then they are likely to experience stress. The bigger the event the more we might expect to see it. And the more other stressors athletes are trying to handle in the rest of the lives the more we might see it too.

It is not hard to see why we might see more athletes struggling with it this year.

The big difference in trying to manage a mental health issue in athletes (rather than those of us with desk based jobs) is that a number of mental health issues have physiological responses – particularly depression and anxiety. Let’s take anxiety. When we find ourselves with too many stressors that we don’t feel we have the ability to handle we will trigger a part of our brain which is constantly looking out for threat – it is called the Amygdala. The amygdala sets off certain chemicals to circulate in our body (preparing our body to fight, flight or freeze). These chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) cause what is called ‘Somatic Anxiety’ very strong reactions in our body – they increase our heart rate, breathing rate, give us a nauseous tummy, create shaky, sweaty hands, tighten up our muscles and can lose some of our peripheral vision. In many jobs we will lose our ability to perform well (we may stumble on some words in a presentation or forget a line in a speech and we will feel dreadful) but in a physical job, like sport we will be unable to perform anywhere near our best. It might be a dodgy serve in tennis or the Yips in golf. It might be tripping in a running race or falling off the equipment in gymnastics. It is significant. When this happens we don’t even need the athlete to explain – we all see it.

And this is only for acute (in the moment) performance anxiety. With long term chronic anxiety these feelings will last much longer, rumble away in the background and again make high performance incredibly hard to reach. 

Are athletes just talking about mental health more?

It does feel that mental health is finally starting to be seen as equal in importance to physical health. Never would we expect someone with a stress fracture to compete – why would we expect someone in the depths of depression or overwhelmed with anxiety to do so?

While I don’t work within the English Institute of Sport or professional clubs what I have seen over the last few years is a much stronger focus within sporting organisations to protect and support mental health in athletes. This piece from the EIS highlights their approach.

It feels like it has driven a real push in these sporting bodies in the last few years to help support athletes with their mental health in the same way physical health is supported. This normalisation of mental health issues being discussed in clubs should help athletes feel more able to talk about their own issues and their impact on performance.

A bit of both

So, maybe we are more susceptible to stress at the moment due to the pandemic, and athletes even more, especially when in a competitive environment. It also seems that as mental health issues become normalised in sport it starts to feel safer for athletes to be open about any mental health struggles in public. And this helps us all realise that poor mental health is not a flaw or a failing but something millions have to face every day.