It has long been understood that an athlete’s performance depends not just on their physical prowess and fitness but also on psychological factors which help them to compete to the best of their ability. Even harking back as far as the ancient Olympics which began in Ancient Greece in 776BC, scholars have been fascinated by the irrevocable connections between mind and body. Sports psychology, in the modern sense, has existed since the early 1900s, growing and developing as a multi-faceted science that aims to help athletes to mentally prepare for their chosen discipline. Sports psychologists help athletes with their preparation off the field whilst also offering methods to help athletes deal with stress and pressure on the field.
In the past few years, however, our growing understanding of mental health has led this field to expand. We are now beginning to understand that the pressures of an athlete’s career can cause a large amount of stress which may affect other areas of their personal lives, and this knowledge has helped the therapeutic field to offer the right kind of support to athletes, helping them to manage all aspects of their mental health, not just those directly related to their physical performance, and the sporting world is following suit with initiatives to help support athletes in this way.
In this article, we explain how sports performers react to mental health issues and how sports hypnotherapy can help performance.
Sports and Mental Health in Current Affairs
In recent news, conversations surrounding the tennis player Naomi Osaka and her withdrawal from the French Open due to issues surrounding her mental health have springboarded a new initiative by the US Open to support the mental health of their tennis players. During this year’s French Open, Osaka refused to attend post-match press conferences, explaining that she had suffered from depression for several years, and that the conferences had an adverse affect on her mental health. (Read more here). As a result, Osaka was fined and threatened with expulsion from the competition, and eventually withdrew from competing. Backlash from this incident has lead the competition’s organisers to review the way in which they handle matters of mental health.
The US Tennis Association has launched a mental health initiative alongside their health partner Mount Sinai Hospital, offering mental health support for players taking part in the competition. This initiative will give players access to counselling sessions and ‘quiet rooms’ in which to relax and contemplate when needed.
The past year has seen further sportspeople come forward to talk publicly about their mental health, for instance, gymnast Simone Biles who pulled out of several Olympic events to focus on her mental health, and who shamed the media for their negative comments on her actions, taking to Instagram to write:
“For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit. My mind and body are simply not in sync…I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health,” @simonebiles Instagram
The Importance of Mental Health Support in Sports
It is becoming clear that mental health in the sports field is something that cannot and should not be ignored. The mental health charity Mind carried out influential research into the topic in 2014, and have shared their findings publicly (https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/4354/mental-health-and-elite-sport.pdf). Their report shares how several sporting sectors have launched mental health initiatives in the past years, such as the Football Association including mental health as an integral part of their academy staff training, the Rugby Players Association offering free counselling to players, and the Professional Cricketers’ Association launching an online mental health service as well as a free helpline for players. Mind’s report concludes that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for mental health in sports, rather that a range of services and initiatives should be provided to support the mental health of all athletes.
Several sportspeople, such as the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, have spoken out about the importance of receiving support for their mental health. Phelps wrote on Twitter in 2019:
“I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore. It was when I hit this low that I decided to reach out and ask for the help of a licensed therapist. This decision ultimately helped save my life. You don’t have to wait for things.” – @MichaelPhelps Twitter
Hypnotherapy and other therapies
As a hypnotherapist, I am keen to examine the place of hypnotherapy as a means to improve sports performance and athletes’ self-belief as well as helping them with a wide range of mental health issues. I have worked with a range of clients seeking to build their confidence in all kinds of personal and professional situations, and believe that this is one important facet that can make a huge difference when it comes to sports performance. During a hypnosis session I help clients return to childhood memories in their unconscious minds that may be impacting upon their self-confidence in the present day. I am able to help clients reframe the personal issues surrounding their lack of confidence, helping them to focus on their positive attributes and build self-belief, stopping them from experiencing self-critical moments, allowing them to let go of any past mistakes, and helping them to view goals and targets as positive opportunities. All of these aspects are incredibly important when it comes to sports performance, as a sportsperson must be focussed and goal-driven in order to achieve their potential, as well as having the confidence to push themselves to be their best, and the strength to let go of fear or guilt when it comes to making mistakes.
I also regularly use hypnotherapy to help clients improve their mental health and manage stress, reframing problems and issues that may be bothering them in all areas of their lives. For many sportspeople suffering with their mental health, hypnotherapy could be a very viable option as a part of their regimen of therapeutic interventions.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is another method which is thought to be highly effective when it comes to helping athletes manage the stress that comes from their high-pressured roles. When used as a form of sports performance therapy, CBT can include techniques such as positive self-talk, and the use of imagery and goal setting. Many athletes suffer from perfectionism- the setting of unrealistic and unachievable goals, coupled with highly self-critical thoughts when their achievements do not match these expectations. Using CBT to set more realistic goals can help athletes avoid placing themselves under unnecessary pressure and therefore causing themselves undue stress before, during, and after sporting events.
It is clear that the fields of sports therapy and sports psychology are becoming about so much more than just improving performance on the sports field. Nonetheless, in focussing on an athletes’ mental health in all areas of their lives can have the effect of increasing their stamina and longevity, and can help them to remain resilient in the face of the pressures of demanding tasks and situations. Hypnotherapy is one of a range of mental health therapies which can help athletes hone their sports performance and achieve sporting success, whilst enjoying happiness and wellbeing in their personal lives and a measure of control over their mental health.