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.
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.
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.