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It's All In Your Head: Shining a Light on the Effects of Mental Health on Performance

This post covers something that is often overlooked and, like sleep, doesn’t have a great image in much of the sports community. I grew up playing sports, so I am familiar with the mental obstacles that athletes face during workouts and during games. I remember in youth baseball I got hit by a hard pitch, and that pain caused anxiety every time I stepped up to bat. I was just told not to be scared, think positive, you’re making a big deal out of it. I also struggled with self-defeat, that I wasn’t good enough to play with certain people. What I wish someone had told me was that if I have skills, that I can get better, that playing with the best is possible. What I needed was someone there to deal with me when I was being difficult. Years later as a coach, I used that to reach the kids who were defeated mentally during a game, and I saw a lot of growth in confidence and character. In chapter 7 of “A Field Guide to Athletic Performance: The 24-Hour Athlete,” author Ralph Reiff faced similar internal enemies as a young athlete. He also noticed personality changes in players who suffered injuries and lost their athletic identities.


A big example here is Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts who retired at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season at his home stadium. He disclosed to the world that his mental health had taken a beating along with his body. All the injuries depleted his confidence to perform at his best, creating more limitations to his optimal performance. Imagine how much his mental health was affected as the injuries added up. Ultimately it all led to what the sports community considers an early retirement, and Luck credited his mental health as the major factor in his decision. Andrew Luck is the example we need to expose the lack of mental health care, especially following injuries. Mental health is more than just dementia or anxiety or depression, it includes confidence, stress management, and decision-making.

Figure 19: Quote by Ron Chamberlain


Reiff credits most of the mental health chapter to Dr. Chris Carr, PhD, HSSP who taught him how impactful a mental health provider could be in the sports performance continuum. Dr. Carr and Jamie Davidson were authors of an excerpt in the Sport Science Institute called “Mind, Body, and Sport: The Psychologist Perspective.” In this article they speak on the mental pressures and demands of student-athletes. Although they were specific to 18- to 21-year-old athletes, similar pressures can apply at all levels of sport. Part of the bundle of pressures and demands that athletes deal with are associated with the number of activities they must fit into a daily schedule. They often have daily practices, strength and conditioning programs, travel for competitions (as a coach, faraway games sucked up a lot of time), a full academic course load, and any necessary sports medicine or rehab appointments.


Another factor that affects athletes on and off the field or court is that their wins and losses will be known by the community. Even in the small town I live in the results of contests are shown on multiple social networking sites, the local radio station, and sometimes the local television station. When you’re the team that got upset, everybody in the community will know about it and you leave yourself open to being ridiculed or put down. Lastly, social interactions and relationships often become less of a priority. In my own opinion, it halts development of necessary social skills needed outside the athletic community.

Figure 20: Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Abnormalities


Dr. Carr also lists some of the challenges to growing psychological care for student-athlete mental health care. First, there’s a negative stigma with mental health care in a sports context. Athletes, coaches, and staff minimize mental disorders or psychological distress because of expectations of strength, stability, and “mental toughness” required in the culture of sports. The result is that athletes avoid disclosing any mental health problems; therefore, they don’t receive the education and resources they need to address these issues. The other challenge mentioned is that once a mental health issue is identified, resources are inadequate to deal with the problem. Schools and sports facilities employ athletic trainers – some even have in-house sports medicine physicians and sports nutritionists – yet very few employ any kind of psychologist. Instead schools rely on campus resources such as the student counseling center to refer athletes for mental health issues. The problem with this approach is that athletic programs need a psychologist with the training and education to address mental health issues specific to athletes. The best person to address these issues is a sports psychologist who normally provides individual counseling for athletes, coordination of substance abuse and eating disorder services for athletes, staff education and consultation, and consultation with athletics administrators on psychological care issues within the athletics department.


This segment relates less to the biomechanical model I’ve been talking about, but I hope understanding how the human body works can help create a sense of hope during treatment of injuries and natural healing processes. An athlete should know that his/her body is made to take impacts and can get better after injuries. The human spring does no good to someone if he/she isn’t aware of the possibilities or is held back from using it because of fear or anxiety. In the next post I will discuss the impact of diet on an athlete, and that there’s more to it than just “eating healthy” or choosing a specific diet to lose weight.

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