Lee Richardson is a Performance and Sports Psychology Consultant for Liverpool FC and the Founder of AIM FOR Ltd. He shares insights from working with world-class athletes to protect and nurture their mental health.

Awareness and support around mental health are continuing to be more relevant everywhere you go. A large majority of those speaking up about mental health are athletes. Often, we think of athletes for their jaw-dropping athleticism and remarkable skills. What is perhaps more impressive than any action on a field are the individuals who are courageous enough to share their own battles with mental health to help others. 

There was a time where the psychological process and functions of players, teams, coaches and the sporting environment as a whole was not evaluated at all. Perhaps even worse was the discussion around psychology—it tended to be negative and often players and coaches actively avoided talking about it. I recently presented on this subject at the Hudl 90 soccer coaches' summit, which brought together leading soccer coaches and elite talent to discuss a wide range of trends and dynamics within the sport. While Hudl continues to advance performance analysis, video capture and scouting through its innovative technology, it also supports shining a light on the psychological and societal aspects of sport. In my Hudl 90 presentation, I talked about my experience, the pressures and challenges of a professional career, and the psychological impact on numerous teammates and competitors on and off the pitch.

The last 10 years have displayed a general trend toward acceptance of the realities of mental health as a fundamentally unpredictable and vulnerable aspect of human nature, as well as the acknowledgment of the role human psychology plays in any pursuit or activity, but especially in sport /athletics. This movement of acceptance regarding support and recovery for mental health is partly thanks to some of the biggest names in sports coming forward about their own battles with mental health. Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Dak Prescott and many others have all used their position as a platform to discuss this issue and provide support to those who are also dealing with mental health issues. This is leading to sport performance psychology becoming more established as a discipline, and an acceptance of the qualified practitioners providing support and guidance.

But I believe that there is more that sports performance psychology can do and contribute in the ways that other sport sciences have, by becoming an integrated aspect of the everyday experience of athletes, a program of support can both be a preventative tool to protect mental health and recovery, as well as a performance-enhancing component for players, coaches and directors. A scholarly article by K.S. Jacob lays out several criteria for the prevention of mental health issues, as well as recovery, which are in line with my own beliefs based on more than 30 years in the sport. I have adapted Jacob’s findings slightly to include some omissions. Here are my five key considerations for supporting athletes’ performance, mental health and recovery

1. Identity Security

Our sense of self is fundamental to mental health. In sports, this means athletes can feel insecure, if their role or position on a team is threatened by de-selection or injury. An athlete should never be complacent in their role, but embracing and understanding that these occasions are a  normal aspect of team sport participation can help create a better mindset to be productive. A sense of Identity security often leads to strong contributions and can create camaraderie amongst teammates. Athletes lacking identity security are more vulnerable to self-doubt, anxiety and concerns about the future, often triggered by the question of why they aren’t playing a bigger role on their team. This can be mentally exhausting for an athlete and push their mental health to a place of difficulty.

2. Strong Connections

No matter the athlete, a strong support system is vital to ensuring an individual is in the best mindset possible to perform. Having teammates, coaches, family and/or loved ones listen and believe in them establishes a productive outlet for athletes in regards to recovery of their mental health. The stresses and anxiety of athletics can build up quickly, so having strong connections allows athletes to open up about the difficulties they’ve experienced and create better mental stability for the next time they compete.

3. Mastery Culture & Environment

An ideal sporting environment is one that provides support for personal growth and creates resilience within athletes to help combat their struggles with mental health. The establishment of a culture that’s built to support athletes’ mental health and recovery allows players to feel comfortable talking about their struggles. If there’s no avenue of support for athletes, then that culture is not one that will see its athletes’ mental health strengthen, improve or recover properly. By periodically monitoring mental performance to draw out issues and concerns, there is an opportunity to identify mental skills that might need developing or refining. This can put an athlete on the right path to building up their mental strength. An appraisal and risk assessment of a player’s current mental state can be obtained by reflecting on factors within the normal performance parameters. 

4. Education

As mentioned, the overall education and awareness of mental health and mental performance is something that’s gained momentum in recent history. Athletes who are educated on mental health and have learned to prioritize it are putting themselves in a position to express their challenges and seek the right help when they notice changes or stressors. While progress around educating athletes about mental health has improved, there is still a far distance to go in relation to combating the myths and providing assistance for every athlete who needs it.

5. Crisis Support

No matter how hard athletes try to put themselves in the right place mentally, moments of adversity and crisis do occur. Challenging moments can overwhelm athletes, putting them in a mental state of doubt and fear. Individuals may feel stuck—a main factor in overcoming these situations is athletes having a voice of reason to support them. Without someone to provide perspective and guidance around difficult scenarios, athletes can find it harder to overcome and recover from the stresses that are weighing on them. Crisis support is on some occasions essential for the mental health and recovery of all athletes.

These key considerations, along with a growing acceptance of athletes speaking up about mental health, creates an optimism that we’ll keep seeing progress made around resources for athletes. With more practitioners trained in sport psychology and certified mental performance consultants, the sporting environment as a whole has amped up its resources. This will hopefully continue so athletes can strengthen their mental health while having a plethora of options for support. 

Reference: Jacob KS. Recovery model of mental illness: A complementary approach to psychiatric care. Indian J Psychol Med 2015;37:117-9

Lee Richardson spoke on mental health at Hudl 90: The Soccer Coaches Summit. Catch up on his session for more insight on mental health.

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