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Mental health in elite sport: it's not just mind games

In recent years increasing attention has been paid to mental health in elite sport. Research shows that while sports people are susceptible to mental health problems such as depression to broadly the same degree as the wider community, there are a number of points when elite sports people may be particularly vulnerable, such as at times of injury, retirement and competitive failure.

While sports participation is known to be beneficial to mental health at a recreational level, the benefits at elite level are complicated by the high-pressure, short-lived nature of sporting careers and a culture (although there is significant variability between sports) that places high value on mental toughness, potentially undermining expressions of distress and support seeking.

Furthermore, in elite sports it is common for someone’s career to dominate their identity. This is unsurprising, given that it is not a job that can be contained within a set number of hours a week, but is instead a way of life, dictating such things as patterns of sleep, diet, and socialising; thereby limiting the scope for development of other aspects of life. Increasingly, promising athletes are siphoned off into clubs at a young age when identity is still being formed, culminating in a sense of self and of self-worth which is tied to sporting performance. It can also be the case that characteristics such as perfectionism, competitiveness and high self-control which can contribute to sporting success can become detrimental as they are expressed in other areas of life.

Sports organisations frequently make use of sports psychology to prepare mentally for the challenges of competition and develop mental toughness. However, there is increasing recognition of the need for therapeutic input to support athletes around issues affecting their emotional health. Sports psychotherapy/sports counselling can help athletes expand their tolerance of difficult emotions, and to broaden their self-identity so they can find value in themselves beyond their sports performance, whilst also supporting their sporting goals.

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