Mental health in competitive sports
Who does not recall Usain Bolt’s unbelievably fast legs, or Michael Phelps’ exceptional speed in the water, or the power Serena Williams brings to the tennis court? Top athletes produce almost superhuman performances for our entertainment. They become role models and symbolise the fact that success and fame are goals worth striving for. This pressure may result in top performances, but doesn’t necessarily. In this article we will talk about mental health in competitive sports and how important it is that more and more attention is being focused on this subject.
Mental health and peak performances
For a long time, the mental health of top athletes has not been a subject of discussion – until now! More and more voices from top sport are reporting mental health issues that even lead to them cancelling participation in tournaments. Simone Biles, who has won multiple gold medals in artistic gymnastics, spoke at the Olympic Games in Tokyo about the psychological challenges arising from the high pressure to perform, and subsequently withdrew from the tournament. She is not an isolated case. Professional swimmer Michael Phelps and tennis star Serena Williams have also gone public about their mental health problems. However, the huge media attention that follows such statements only shows that athletes struggling with mental health challenges is not seen as “normal” – and that we need to discuss these issues much more, because actually, every single one of us could also be affected.
Top athletes train daily – and at the highest level – in exactly the same way as we go about our daily lives. In addition to training, there are competitions, plus plenty of further, different tasks (e.g., from sponsors). When you are under such constant pressure to perform, limits may well be exceeded. But talking about this is a huge taboo for many of the sportsmen and sportswomen affected.
Sports psychiatry and sports psychotherapy
Medical personal, physiotherapists and psychologically trained staff, such as sports psychologists, are always present at the daily training sessions, which only serves to highlight that competitive athletes are under great stress both physically and mentally. Sports psychology is concerned primarily with mental strength and the associated performance. By contrast, sports psychiatry and sports psychotherapy deal with diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. These services attempt to prevent careers from ending prematurely due to mental health difficulties. However, anyone affected must be aware of their mental state, admit it openly and also make use of the services. These somewhat recent specialist areas show that top sport needs to consider wellbeing and mental health alongside improving performance. Because you can only achieve peak performance when you’re mentally strong.
Sport and exercise are healthy – or are they?
Regular exercise protects against the development of depression and other mental illnesses, but, at the highest level, may also result in mental illnesses. At first glance this may seem like a paradox. But various factors play a role here, as is so often the case. Moderation – as in so many other areas – is essential. More exercise does not necessarily mean better health. What’s more, when you do sport for your health, your performance is not the focus, unlike in competitive sports. Then there are the many and varied expectations of different contractual partners, team members, trainers, fans and many more, in competitive sports. All this is then combined with strictly scheduled training plans. These factors clearly lead to mental stress and could result in overload. For example, burnout and depression often go hand-in-hand with the pressure to perform and with exceeding your own limits.
Mental illnesses are still a huge taboo subject, even though they should actually be treated by society in exactly the same way as physical illnesses and injuries. It is important that we all talk about it more often and more openly – not just people in top sport. And we should never forget that our sporting idols are also human. Human beings who give exceptional performances, but sometimes also have bad days and are allowed to talk about their mental health problems. We can all contribute to ensuring that mental health becomes a “normal” topic of conversation.
The following aspects are some things that could be considered so that both top athletes and we ourselves can stay healthy:
- Getting enough sleep
- Regular rest and relaxation
- A balanced diet
- Good stress management
- Social relationships
- No matter what, talk about it
- How to ask for help
Our podcast recommendation for you
If you would like to learn more about mental health in competitive sports, then we recommend the CBTalks podcast “Athlete Mental Health” – a health scientist talks to a Gaelic football player about challenges on and off the pitch.
Schlossparkklinik Dirmstein. (2021, 21 September). Schneller, höher, weiter: Was Leistungsdruck im Sport mit der psychischen Gesundheit macht. https://www.schlosspark-klinik-dirmstein.de/was-leistungsdruck-im-sport-mit-der-psychischen-gesundheit-macht/
Claussen, M. C. (2022, 7 June). Psychische Gesundheit und Erkrankungen im Leistungssport [Interview]. Hogrefe. https://www.hogrefe.com/ch/thema/psychische-gesundheit-und-erkrankungen-im-leistungssport