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.
With mental health problems, early intervention can lead to better – and often faster – recovery. Athletes who experience mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or low mood, can often downplay or minimise their experiences, insisting: “It’s nothing; it will pass”. But doing so misses the chance to intervene early, before problems become persistent or more severe.
The power of YOUR mind
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. With actions following thoughts and emotions, activating certain facial expressions – such as smiling – can result in better emotional control. Allowing yourself to maintain a calm and confident outward appearance can often lead you out of a cycle of stress more quickly.
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.
The more you know your own stressors and triggers, the better you can prevent them. Pay attention to the situations, experiences, people or things that can increase your stress, or trigger mental health symptoms (such as feeling anxious, depressed, or needing to use alcohol or other substances to cope). If you better understand your own stressors, you can find new and better ways of coping. This can ultimately reduce stress and improve your mental well-being.
PART OF BEING AN ELITE ATHLETE IS TO PUSH BOUNDARIES – AND NOT JUST PHYSICALLY, BUT MENTALLY.
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.
Of course, injuries are a part of your life in sport. Any injury is both a potential threat and a potential loss. Developing mental health symptoms in this situation is common and could slow your recovery and delay your rehabilitation. Be sure to take care of both your physical and mental health.
Eating disorders are also common in elite athletes. Even more common is disordered eating, which can still have a significant negative impact on your life and your sporting performances. Disordered eating could include anything from restricting your food intake even when you’re hungry to using diet pills and even trying to lose weight with saunas or “sweat runs” (which will only lead to dehydration). Being overly obsessed with “healthy eating” and focusing on burning calories during exercise can also lead to problems, so if you think you are suffering from any of these symptoms, be sure to talk to a healthcare professional.
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.
Set up the right support network for YOU
Develop a support network
We all need people in our lives whom we can trust and whose advice we can seek quickly and easily. This could be a combination of family, friends, teammates and others. Having this support network allows us to talk openly about things that are stressing us out and develop new perspectives, while also creating an outlet for our negative emotions. Take a look at those around you who seem to manage stress well. Learn from their example and ask for their advice. If that doesn’t help, seek help from a physiotherapist, trainer, team physician or mental health therapist.
Feeling low or constantly stressed – especially in a way that keeps you from doing what you need to do – can make problems seem overwhelming or never-ending. These thoughts and feelings can play tricks and make it harder to seek or accept help, but help is always available. Talking about your mental health should never be seen as a weakness, and you shouldn’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. Athletes are known for having strong self-belief, resilience and mental toughness, but sometimes you may still need professional support for your mental health – just as you would if you had a physical injury.
Take some time out
Finding a good life balance is key to maintaining mental health and happiness. Spending some time, no matter how brief, away from training and competition can refresh your energy and raise your motivation. This is time you could spend with family or friends, having fun, enjoying hobbies, pursuing your education, or simply relaxing. If you over-train without taking breaks, this can result in chronic fatigue and burnout, which can feel and look like depression. Planning in advance to invest time and energy in all of life’s important areas can prolong your career and allow for optimal performance!
TALKING ABOUT YOUR MENTAL HEALTH SHOULD NEVER BE SEEN AS A WEAKNESS, AND YOU SHOULDN’T BE AFRAID TO SEEK HELP IF YOU NEED 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.
Plan, Plan, Plan
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.
There are several ways to make quality sleep more likely, including: waking and going to bed at a consistent time; following relaxation and unwinding routines; having a cool and dark bedroom; using white noise to block out distractions and quieten the mind; covering bright LED lights and unplugging digital devices; avoiding long daytime naps; avoiding alcohol, stimulants, video gaming, TV and other screens before bedtime; and limiting your eating, drinking and exercise just before you sleep.
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.
Prepare for the end of your sporting career
Are you nearing the end of your sporting career? If so, it is important to prepare for the next phase of your life just as you have prepared for your sports competitions. Athletes who are transitioning out of sport may be at risk of developing mental health problems. The risk increases if you have very few non-sports interests or relationships, if you have not planned for retirement, if you do not find a job after retirement, or if you have ongoing physical pain.
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.
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