By Dr. Monica Sainz  |  11/22/2023

athlete mental health


"It's not how you fall, it's how you get back up. Still I rise." Lewis Hamilton, Formula 1 seven-time world champion, often said this adage. Coaches, sports psychologists, or athletic trainers supporting professional athletes or amateur student athletes should regularly prioritize athlete mental health to help their performance in competitions.


Improving Mental Health for Athletes' Overall Well-Being, Self-Esteem, and Performance

Examples from professional sports abound where an athlete's well-being, self-esteem, and performance are concerned. For example, players showing up to competitions will not be at their best if they are not in top physical health and mental health.


Identifying Mental Health Concerns

The father of Serena and Venus Williams, who coached these tennis players to stardom, always said that sport is 70% mental. Generally, athletes can self-identify that they have mental health concerns because they may be dealing with the emotions surrounding a physical injury, depression, or anxiety.

Maybe they notice that there have been changes in their sleeping patterns. Sometimes, certain collegiate athletes or elite athletes may experience mood disorders.

Eating disorders also occur in the sports world, especially among youth athletes. These eating disorders may be triggered by psychological factors such as a need for perfection, dissatisfaction with one's appearance, or loneliness.

Coaches at collegiate and professional levels must be aware of any mental health conditions and help their athletes by guiding them to the proper medical experts and educational resources. Collaboration between individuals and their team creates awareness and enables physical health and mental health care to be improved.

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Role of Coaches in Athlete Mental Health

To assess the mental health conditions of their athletes, coaches and psychologists will need to make an effort. They should also consider if their athletes have been fighting injuries.

Injuries are common in any sport; they can occur not only during competitions but also during practice. Injuries can be short-lived or they can last over a period of weeks or months. Some injuries that occur to elite athletes can even be career-ending, causing mental health problems and destroying an athlete's mental well-being.

The coach’s job is to ensure that an athlete is receiving proper treatment, using high-quality medical teams and therapists. Tiger Woods is a great example of an elite athlete who has undergone surgeries and returned to top performance.

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The Pressure of Winning

The pressure to win can also affect an athlete’s mental health, especially if the athlete is already experiencing poor mental health. Naomi Osaka, a Haitian/Japanese tennis player who rose to the number one position in the world, is a typical example.

Osaka had her share of injuries on the way to the top. The pressure to win apparently got to her, as is common in many professional competitors.

At times, the enormous pressure to win a competition can turn into burnout, a lack of motivation to compete and win, or a lack of interest in remaining at the top of one’s game.

When Osaka announced that she was going to take a break from her tennis career, the global sports media was quite tough on her, according to Tennis. In a similar vein, the mental health struggles of athletes are sometimes met with skepticism and public criticism, which can sometimes trigger a mental health crisis such as depression or anxiety in some competitors.

After taking time off the circuit, Osaka decided to start a family. She is now a thriving, young, and happy new mother. She is still comparatively young and may possibly return to the sport she loves.


The Fear of Failure and Its Role in Mental Health

The late Kobe Bryant was always full of wisdom about his stellar career. A quote from him touches on the fear of failure that competitors commonly encounter, which is a part of athletes' mental health challenges.

Bryant said, "I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it."

To achieve peak performance and mental wellness, elite athletes and other competitors must be aware of their doubts and fear of failure. They can overcome mental health challenges through self-awareness strategies and discussing mental health issues with a sympathetic coach or a mental health professional.


Mental Health Resources for Elite and Professional Athletes

The National Basketball Association® (NBA) instituted a major mental health initiative to assist competitors and coaches in recognizing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression and to provide social support. DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls posted on social media about depression "getting the best of him," which was causing him to experience insomnia and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

League initiatives are necessary to support elite and professional athletes and aid them with overcoming mental health symptoms. Over the years of his successful coaching career with the Bulls and Lakers, 13-time championship winner and coach Phil Jackson always worked on the physical and mental skills of his competitors. Some key elements of Jackson’s mindfulness training were breathing strategies, guided meditation, body awareness, good posture, and self-care.

In 1993, Jackson incorporated George Mumford's techniques of mindfulness into his efforts to improve his athletes’ mental health. According to Muse, Mumford said: “This ability to step back and observe your experience in an uncritical way, you can actually understand how your mind works, how your body works, how the universe works, how basketball works.”


Strategies for Mindfulness

Interoception – the understanding of the body’s inner sensations according to the Association for Psychological Science – is also a tool used for mindfulness for athletes. Psychologists who work with competitors use interoception to help athletes perceive how their body senses effort and fatigue while they perform.

Coach Bob Bowman taught Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps guided meditation and event visualization to help Phelps win athletic events. Bowman trained Phelps to visualize his athletic performance before bed and upon waking up to improve his mental health and optimize his performance in competition. Phelps went on to win 23 gold medals in the Olympics.


Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement

Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE®) is a training program followed by many athletes and coaches to improve their athletes' mental health and increase athletes’ mental toughness and well-being. It encourages athletes to have a positive attitude and make a positive attitude a mindful choice.

Using MSPE, athletes enhance their high level of motivation and stay mindful of it even when things are not going their way. They stay conscious of how to deal effectively with people through self-encouragement, which can be a useful step in improving mental health and decreasing mental health issues.


Mental Health Training through the Use of Positive Imagery

A big part of mental health training for young athletes and professionals is imagery. Imagining yourself competing before a match, game, or contest is a key to mastering positive mental imagery.

One example is tennis star Arthur Ashe. During the Wimbledon men's tennis final, Ashe sat in his chair during a changeover and meditated with his eyes closed in deep concentration.


Managing Anxiety

One of the most famous elite athletes known for his anxiety before competitions is soccer player Lionel Messi. Messi used to have such a high level of anxiety that he became known for vomiting before matches. This eight-time winner of the Ballon d'Or and one-time FIFA World Cup winner for Argentina in Qatar had to learn over the years how to manage his anxiety and improve his mental health.

MSPE training allows people to realize that anxiety is part of a sport, but it has to be controlled to maintain optimal mental health. Messi's technique involved allowing himself to take time and become aware of a situation by himself without talking with his teammates. He can calm down and remains aware of his feelings, which removes his anxiety.


Goal Setting for Athletes

Elite athletes must also work hard with coaches to set high goals for the team and for their own careers. Ideally, athletes should have short- and long-term goals, and football player Tom Brady is one example of working to achieve goals according to The Fam.

Brady believes that setting goals increases your chances of success, which can improve your mental health. Ideally, these goals must be attainable and revisited from time to time.


Athletes’ Management of Emotions

Being an athlete is always enticing because of the joys and excitement it brings. However, athletes at any level must be aware that in sports involves a range of emotions, including anger and disappointment, and must be prepared to seek treatment if necessary.

MSPE techniques can train athletes to deal with difficult emotions like anger and disappointment to achieve higher levels of performance and reduce mental health issues Examples of anger issues abound in sports; baseball players such as Rob Dibble and Carlos Zambrano (Big Z) come to mind.

Coaches, however, can train athletes to better manage their emotions and mental health. Ultimately, that control can help athletes to improve their performance during practice sessions and in competition.


Maintaining Concentration for the Improvement of Athletes' Mental Health

In any sport, maintaining your mental focus can lead to optimal performance and eventual victory. Coaches and psychologists can use MSPE and other strategies to help their athletes' mental health issues by focusing on the current situation, resisting distractions such as drug use, and focusing on goals.

When mindfulness is the foundation of mental health training, optimal physical performance can be more easily achieved. According to a book by peak performance expert Steven Kotler, motorsport athlete Travis Pastrana says: “Every good athlete can find the flow, but it’s what you do with it that makes you great. If you consistently use that state to do the impossible, you get confident in your ability to do the impossible.

“You begin to expect it. That’s why we’re seeing so much progression in action sports today. It’s the natural result of a whole lot of people starting to expect the impossible.”

Coaches and mental health professionals can team up to help athletes deal with their mental health in sports. They can assist athletes in achieving mental health wellness and arm them with the tools needed to achieve mental strength both on and off the field. The strategies used in this effort can increase their overall mental and physical well-being in daily life as well as improve performance in competition, whatever an athlete’s sport may be.


Relevant Articles:

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About the Author
Dr. Monica Sainz

Dr. Monica Sainz is a part-time faculty member in the School of Health Sciences and has taught online courses since 2004. She holds a bachelor’s degree in multi-/interdisciplinary studies from Glenville State University and a has earned a master's degree and doctorate in sport management/marketing from the United States Sports Academy. Her doctoral dissertation was on the topic of the flow state and optimal performance in college athletes. Monica has also taken courses toward a doctor of business administration in international business management from Northcentral University. Her teaching career has also allowed her to teach MBA students in Vietnam numerous times. In college, Monica was a student-athlete and competed in Division I tennis.

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