Game Changers: 6 Valuable Mental Health Lessons from the World of Sports

In recent years there has been a big shift in our understanding around mental health, not least of which in sport. No longer are elite athletes seen as ‘performance machines’, they are humans and like all humans their mental health is important and needs protecting.

Elite level sports involves relentless pressure and stress. But historically, mental health or emotions haven’t been at the forefront of the conversation. There is still a long way to go, but advancements have been made. In the past 12 years, l’ve personally witnessed this transformation while offering support to clients involved in elite-level professional sports such as Formula 1, International and Premier League football, Tour level tennis and golf & FIS skiing. 

So what’s being done about mental health in elite sports – and what valuable lessons can be drawn from it for everyone? Let’s delve into six mental health insights from the world of sports.

1. Start with education: What is mental health?

It’s difficult to impact positive change without understanding. Specialists delivering mental health training are now more common within governing bodies and sporting organisations, helping us both learn the theory, and challenge current working practices. For example, recent research has shown how e.g. concussion or weight management can have serious mental health implications. This allows us to both understand the cause and offer targeted support.

2. Watch your language – ‘tough’ but also ‘tired’

Words are not neutral. The words we use are powerful – they can lead to a dangerous reality. Language like ‘mental toughness’ was used within sporting environments for decades, and worn as a badge of honour – but it engendered the illusion that if you have moments when you’re not ‘tough’, you do not fit in and will not succeed. This needs a rethink – from sports management down to individual athletes: How do we use these words? What do we mean with them? Can we add alternatives or use more sensitivity?

3. Remove the obstacles – early & clear processes 

Early intervention is crucial for supporting mental health challenges. Within high performance systems, we need pathways and procedures to make it easy to take the next steps when necessary – when to react, who to speak to, how to refer on. There needs to be clarity around how everyone can play a part in directing towards a mental health professional for specialist support as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

4. The power of conversation 

You can’t change a narrative around anything unless you’re talking about it. Thankfully mental health is being talked about a lot more now. In sports we have inspiring role models that have publicly shared their own honest experiences with mental health challenges – this helps remove the stigma. The most important message to anyone who’s struggling is that support is just one conversation away. Find someone you trust and open up.

5. Spotlight on environment & culture

Crucial for supporting poor mental health is removing the stigma that it is ‘their problem’. Rather, we need a spotlight on the environment and culture where the issues exist. Maintaining good mental health is everybody’s problem, and within an elite level environment such as sport, we all have a role to play. After all, cultures are formed by individual behaviours on mass. 

6. Wellbeing & performance = the same thing

In sport (and most high-performance environments) there’s a deeply held belief that you have to suffer to achieve. In other words, there’s a “wellbeing vs. performance trade-off” – a little more of one would mean a little less of the other. 

We now know the opposite is true. The science of high performance tells us that to cope with the pressures of elite environments, wellbeing and positive mental health have to be a priority. High performers are not robots, objects, or assets. They are people. Interestingly, this shift in understanding is not only good news for mental health, it’s good news for performance, too.