Mental Health and Elite Athletes

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For elite athletes, their mental health is vital for training and peak performance, however there are regularly examples of elite athletes having issues with their mental health being reported in the news media. Mental health problems have been reported in 5 to 35% of elite athletes. Some of the mental health issues include sleep disorders and sleep concerns; depression; suicidal thoughts; anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; substance abuse; post-concussion issues; and eating disorders.

Athletes may be more predisposed to depressive symptoms due to the physical and psychological demands that are placed on them by being in the sports environment. Elite athletes may be even more vulnerable due to the high status that they attain and the extreme pressures put on themselves and by others expectations. Adequate levels of anxiety are related to the athletes performance and is an acknowledged part of the sporting performance, however anxiety can also become pathological for the athlete.

Athletes are subject to all of the usual life stressors that affect the mental health of those in the general population (eg relationship break-up; death in the family; etc) and there are many factors from sport that can additionally have an impact on an athletes mental health such as an injury; pressures to perform; coping and dealing with a failure (or a success); unexpected termination of their career (eg from injury or contract terminated); transitioning out of the sport (and making a comeback).

Relevance:
All health professionals involved in the care of athletes have a responsibility to be cognizant of mental health issues. A lot of the risk factors for mental health issues in elite athletes are modifiable and help can be provided to develop self-management skills to cope. All stakeholders from the coach, support staff, manager to professional organizations and governmental bodies as well as the health professional play a role to support the athletes mental health, by responding to concerns and issues.

The International Olympic Committee published a consensus statement in 2019 on mental health in elite athletes with a number of recommendations:

Mental health symptoms and disorders are common among elite athletes, may have sport related manifestations within this population and impair performance. Mental health cannot be separated from physical health, as evidenced by mental health symptoms and disorders increasing the risk of physical injury and delaying subsequent recovery. There are no evidence or consensus based guidelines for diagnosis and management of mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes. Diagnosis must differentiate character traits particular to elite athletes from psychosocial maladaptations.

Management strategies should address all contributors to mental health symptoms and consider biopsychosocial factors relevant to athletes to maximise benefit and minimise harm. Management must involve both treatment of affected individual athletes and optimising environments in which all elite athletes train and compete. To advance a more standardised, evidence based approach to mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes, an International Olympic Committee Consensus Work Group critically evaluated the current state of science and provided recommendations. (link)

Examples in the news media:
The women’s tennis player, Naomi Osaka from the USA who was at the time ranked second in the world and had won four major titles announced prior to the 2018 French Open that she would no longer participate in any after-match news conferences because she wants to safeguard her mental well-being. She was widely criticized in social media for this and was fined $15 000 by the tournament organizer. It was later revealed that she had been suffering long bouts of depression. She has since been widely praised for pushing a once-taboo subject into the open (link).

The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who won 23 gold medals, has had long struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts following his successes at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

Seven time Olympic artistic gymnastics medalist, Simone Biles withdrew from the team event, all-around and some of the apparatus finals at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health and to deal with what gymnasts call ‘twisties’ (a mental block where competitors can lose track of where they are during midair maneuvers). She now advocates for mental health issues (link).

Sports Psychology Books:

Psyche of the Injured AthleteThe ISSP Manual of Sports PsychiatryKey Concepts in Sport PsychologyThe Psychology of Sport Injury and RehabilitationPsychology of Sport Injury
Psyche of the Injured Athlete: The Unspoken TruthsThe ISSP Manual of Sports PsychiatryKey Concepts in Sport PsychologyThe Psychology of Sport Injury and RehabilitationPsychology of Sport Injury

Related Pages:
Sports Psychology | Psychological Response to Injury | Psychological risk factors | Transitioning from Elite Sport | The Psychology of High Heel Footwear | ‘Choking’ in Athletes

Page last updated: Sep 19, 2022 @ 6:46 am

 
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