Performance and mental health: Why they are inextricably linked

In the world of performance sport and the drive for results a focus on good general mental health is often lost. In the rush to deliver key mental skills, to test performers under pressure, or to enhance decision-making skills general mental health can get overlooked. This is a concern as a robust bedrock of good mental health is fundamentally important to successful performance, and success over the long term. The pressures associated with performance at the higher levels are not ‘normal’, as such we should not necessarily expect individuals to cope automatically. Indeed with the significant travel, social sacrifices and disassociation with normal social support structures it seems obvious that sports performers good mental health is inherently at risk.

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You might naturally think, well is general mental health actually that important? Don’t you just need to accept that is what performance sport is like, and it is not the most ‘holistic’ of environments? Well I would argue that good mental health is the factor that enables sports performers to cope with the performance environment. There is significant literature out there that highlights the link between the ability to cope (under pressure) and ultimate performance and achievement. We also know that poor mental health reduces our ability to cope with both general and more significant stressors. So, good mental health will ultimately determine our ability to cope under pressure. Also, good mental health is linked to our ability to cope with training loads. Consider the case of overtraining. The phenomenon know as overtraining is actually not just to do with training (load, duration, intensity etc), it is an interaction between the physical work you do, the about of rest and recovery you have and your ability to cope with that workload both physically and mentally). Any changes in the balance between these factors can result in burnout. So train too hard, and you are at risk. Don’t get enough recovery for the same workload, and you are also at risk. Finally, do the same work and rest but decrease your body’s ability to cope (physically or mentally) and you are at risk. So decrements in general mental health can significantly increase the risk of overtraining and burnout.

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So instead of being separate to sports performance general mental health fundamentally underpins both training and performance. The more healthy you are the more readily you will be able to cope with the pressure of performance (and everything that goes with it), and the more likely you will be able to cope with the required training workload.

 

So as well as seeking to develop key performance-focused mental skills and abilities in performers, sport psychologists also need to ensure good mental health in individual performers and across the performance environment that they work in. Performance sport makes this particularly challenging but no less important. There is also an argument that selection and talent Identification programmes should also consider how mentally ‘healthy’ a potential performer is before exposing them to the performance world. Doctors and physiotherapists would think twice if there was significant risk of an individual not coping physically, maybe the psychologists should be doing the same mentally.

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6 comments

  1. “The more healthy you are the more readily you will be able to cope with the pressure of performance (and everything that goes with it)”……..evidence for this please Stewart? There is good evidence that athletes require a base level of mental health in order to cope with training loads / stressors etc but no evidence (as far as I am aware) that this is a linear relationship. At some point very high levels of mental health may be associated with reductions in performance. Why would someone who is in a state of complete well being decide to expose themselves to something that is stressful, anxiety provoking and potentially physically and mentally draining?

    • Hi James, thank you for the comments. I think we actually agree. The mental health I was referring to was a general base from which to build performance. So, athletes who are not depressed, or self-harming, or fearful or anxious etc. My view is that we seek to ensure that performers are not deficit regarding their robust mental health (recognising the challenges of the environment) rather than seeking to realise some kind of optimal or desirable ‘positive’ condition (well-being).So while our performers might not be optimal are they acceptable?

      I also think that the idea of being ‘mentally healthy’ has been hijacked by the notion of being normal. Not confirming to the ‘normal’ template does not necessarily mean that you are mentally unhealthy. Indeed for many conditions someone has simply drawn an arbitrary line in the sand for what level is deemed normal and as a result what ‘abnormal’ is, and as such mental health diagnosis is really just a judgement call. Maybe the starting point should be does it impact upon normal functioning for that individual?

  2. I couldn’t agree more! I am still competing at international level in sport with my professional background in mental health. I have always argued that health promotion, effective awareness work and ensuring better general mental health amongst athletes is essential and our duty not only for their sports performance but for their overall health and well being!
    This was my motivation for starting my Company – Mind In Sport Ltd which focuses on improving mental health within sports and working to promote this need even further throughout the sports community.
    It is still frustrating to come across individuals who do not see this as a priority, or believe that by helping someone’s mental health it will have a detrimental impact on performance (e.g. Someone with anger issues in their personal life suddenly losing their aggression within their sports performance) but not only is this a very old fashioned belief it is morally wrong and we are doing that athlete an injustice putting them at even greater risk.
    The modern world of sports, the additional pressures in society and the accessibility of service means we should continue to adapt and grow to ensure that well being is of priority. The same way we talk ‘process then outcome’ to athletes it’s time to think ‘well being then performance’ – look after the athlete as a person and the performance will take care of itself!

    • Hi Cara, Thank you for the comments. I agree regarding the importance of being mentally healthy. I think generally the link between sport and well-being is important, although do concede James’s point that at the highest levels sport is not necessarily conducive to well-being, just because of its nature and the sacrifices it requires. However we can seek to ensure that athletes are not mentally deficit as this will impact upon their ability to cope. Will definitely look up your company Mind In Sport Ltd

  3. I don’t often enjoy taking this position, but i would have to agree with James. Aspects of a good mental health may be required to function (e.g., training) but that is not to say it is fundamental to sport performance at high level. Indeed, if you look at the outcome of high performance environments, where the majority of athletes don’t succeed, it would seem mentally unhealthy to spend a lifetime pursuing something that among most athletes is an unlikely outcome (i.e., performing at the very top). In fact I would argue, while acknowledging that there is little evidence to support this contention at present, that a lot of athletes would be close to exhibiting personality disorders (narcissistic/borderline/obsessive compulsive personality disorder). A diagnosis which in a normal population is considered a mental health issue, but perhaps not considered the same among a sporting population where athleticism is popularised and where the characteristics of such disorders are not seen as dysfunctional. For example, obsessive compulsive behaviours are often accepted as rituals in sports such as baseball to be part of training and performing well. So it may not be good mental health alone but an interaction with environmental buffers that facilitate good performance. So while I do think they are inextricably linked I don’t think it is as straight forward and as intuitive as one might think. Interesting article though!

    • Hi Lauren, Thank you for taking the time to add your thoughts. I agree it is a complex issue and you raise some valid points. I suppose I have an issue with the notion of ‘normal’. I think everyone exhibits degrees of conditions such as narcissism / Obsessive compulsive/ sensation seeking etc. So the question relates to where we draw the line in the sand regarding what is deemed normal and acceptable. What is deemed ‘normal’ in everyday life might not be what is ‘normal’ in a high pressure environment. Diagnosis of many mental health conditions is really a judgement call based on observed behaviours, and the experience/expertise of the assessor. So these assessments are intuitively flawed based upon the individuals view on what constitutes normal behaviour. Which returns me to the first point. The notion of what is normal is not a concrete concept but a socially determined one. Which is one of the reasons why some mental health conditions and their associated symptoms have changed overtime (schizophrenia is a god example).

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