The concept of mental health within sport has long been an issue of paramount importance behind the scenes. However, in light of public announcements and addresses from elite athletes and governing bodies, it has only recently come to the fore of the nation’s conscious awareness and understanding.
Benefits of Sport
The benefits of sport on an individual’s mental health has been well documented in recent times. Studies have shown that physical activity can help prevent and manage mental health problems, reduce depression and anxiety amongst children and serve as a tool for intervention in the important stage of mitigating any long-standing issues arising from mental health issues.
Sport England has shown a demonstrable commitment to investing in projects related to mental health on account of the government’s Sporting Future strategy putting mental health at the very heart of its’ focus. To date, Sport England has invested more than £8 million of exchequer and National Lottery funding into the projects.
More than anything, sport has the opportunity to act as a release from day-to-day life, cited as a major reason behind the importance of the return of elite sport within the country during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
During the Pandemic, exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment strategy for symptoms of depression and anxiety. In addition, short and long-term benefits for an individual’s mood, sleep and physical health with consistency and sustained motivation showing to potentially be enhanced by peer and family support, both known contributors to aiding mental health.
In spite of this, MIND has stated that early evidence suggests that people will be returning to sport following the COVID-19 pandemic with poorer mental health than prior. Maintain a regular healthy lifestyle, including physical exercise is a pivotal contributor to one’s overall mental health. In addition, a recent study by O’Connor et al. (2005) has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic will have severe and far reaching psychological consequences for society’s mental health. As a result, the role of sport and exercise in the lives of everyone around the world now carries an even greater importance.
In spite of this, involvement in sport and exercise is not a guarantee of avoiding mental health problems entirely.
Elite athletes, who have dedicated their lives to sports performance, have a greater involvement in physical activity than the average individual. It has been shown, however that elite athletes face considerable additional pressures to that of the mainstream population, as the likes of Aaron Lennon and Frank Bruno have shown. This unique combination of pressures and expectations can serve as the cause for such problems as well as contributing to future problems when they are no longer present in an athlete’s life.
MIND, a mental health charity, states that 1 in 4 individuals will experience mental health problems in any given year. Naturally, this extends to the elite athlete population and specific triggers of leaving the sport, retiring and suffering in silence are highlighted as key indicators of the potential to lead to mental health problems within elite sport.
Within this, it has been highlighted by Purcell et al (2019) that there is not currently a sufficient framework in place to deal with mental health, in its’ various guises, within elite sport beyond the building of mental health literacy or awareness of the signs amongst athletes.
Competitive sport exists at every level throughout the country. Professional, Semi-professional and Amateur sports compete throughout the calendar year, providing a platform upon which healthy sporting competition can flourish. Despite the monetary variants between levels, there are a number of similarities that exist within the mentality of athletes across sports.
It has been shown that competitive athletes may have less positive attitudes towards help-seeking for mental health problems that non-athletes. This competitive edge within their psyche can be perceived to be a key contribution to helping them reach the level of performance they are accustomed to. An admission of not being completely mentally healthy can often be perceived as admission of failure or defeat, contributing to Watson’s findings.
Despite the apparent link therefore between mental toughness and mental health, it has been shown to have a positive impact on inducing positive mental health, rather than proving a hindrance.
Sport and exercise can have the power to harness a positive outlook on life as part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. As with anything, moderation is key to contributing to a positive mental approach as excessive focus on pressures, both internal and external, can induce a negative impact on an individuals’ mental health. This can often be the case when regardless of whether these pressures are genuine or perceived.
The ability to enjoy the personal, social, physical and mental benefits that accompany going for a run, a walk, a cycle, completing an exercise class or playing a competitive match gives sport a unique escapism that can influence other aspects of an individuals’ life.
As highlighted by MIND, suffering in silence is a key contributor to poor mental health and being aware of the benefits that accompany talking to someone, in any capacity, can play a key role in maintaining an individuals’ well-being.
With MIND identifying Depression and Anxiety as the two most common forms of mental health being affected, recognising the symptoms, in a sporting and generic context become crucial. The NHS identify continuous low mood, sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, irritable and a lack of motivation as key indicators of depression. Within sport, this can have a direct impact on performance, often without being identified as a contributing factor.
For anxiety, it can carry symptoms of fear and worry, feeling fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, grinding teeth, sleep difficulty and a racing heart. Whilst one-off incidents are not always indicative of an underlying issue, consistently monitoring your mental health is a crucial aspect in every facet of life, not simply within sport.
If you have any concerns, the NHS provide a useful list of mental health charities that offer assistance and guidance to those in need.