The relationships between sport and mental health are multifaceted. On one hand multiple studies have suggested that people who participate in sport and organised recreational activities have better mental health. On the other, elite sport and athlete transition have been linked to higher rates of mental health issues.
The World Health Organisation has defined mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual:
realises his or her own potential
recognises their own abilities
can cope with the normal stressors of life
can work productively and fruitfully
is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
According to Australian mental health charity Beyond Blue “it encompasses physical and mental health and wellbeing, injury and illness, social health and social responsibility, lifestyle competencies, education and career development/ management and mentoring”.
Athlete mental health
Individuals with sound mental health will perform better at work and be more settled in every aspect of their lives. Athletes are no different. In fact, it is especially important for athletes to work on developing mental health and resilience skills due to the highly competitive, high-performance (and often public-facing) environments in which they exist. The elite sporting world in particular has a tendency to hyper-focus on one element of the athlete’s life: winning. This one-dimensional approach can be effective in the short term, but can also lead to mental and physical burnout, shortened careers and complex transitions out of sport.
At the same time, stigma surrounding mental health has led to a culture in the sporting world of masking issues in order to not show “weakness”. Athletes are afraid of being shunned by their peers and dropped from the team. This makes it hard for those in the sporting community to seek help when they need it, which in turn increases the risk of addiction, self-harm and even suicide.
We believe there is strength in being able to safely acknowledge and deal with mental health problems.
A holistic approach to athlete wellbeing and mental health is necessary to maintain high performance for longer career spans. Mentally healthy, happy athletes will enjoy their sport and compete for longer no matter what level they obtain. Sound mental health also places the athlete in a much better position to manage the transition to life after sport, when that time comes.
Mental health is as important as physical health. The sporting world has a responsibility to athletes and the wider community to break down the stigma associated with mental health issues and allow them to be tackled head on with the knowledge, tools, support and guidance required.