- Written by Luke Jennings
Sarah grew up loving sport and enjoyed a successful junior Modern Pentathlon career on the international stage. The pressure at this level is huge, not least for a young athlete. Sarah took the decision to finish her sporting career in her early 20s to protect her mental health. This ignited a passion in her to better understand mental health and the support on offer for athletes across all sports.
I think if you ask any athlete, they’d say that they have had some battle with their mental health at some point”.
Across the general population, 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem every year (Mind). This can be further exacerbated in high-performing sportspeople due to the intense set of challenges they face every day.
Scrutiny from the media and the public, performance slumps, the high expectations of fans and the constant fear that their sporting career could end tomorrow; it’s clear that athletes are unique in how they live their lives.
How do athletes cope with these challenges? Can more be done to proactively prepare sportspeople to be able to deal with the struggles they could face in their career. Are we still operating reactively, aiming to help athletes at crisis point?
Sarah Collin wanted to find the answers. A short modern-pentathlon career that took her all over the world gave Sarah an insight into just how hard life as an athlete can be.
“I was competing internationally at the National Training Centre, went to international championships. I was training with Olympians and World Champions as well.”
“I was on the junior team…so if someone who wasn't even at the top of the sport was struggling, you can probably assume that those who were at the highest level must have had [or have] some sort of mental health challenge.”
“My friends who had nothing to do with one pentathlon didn't even know. Only my parents, and then a practitioner that I was seeing externally about it knew I was struggling.” Sarah was reluctant to share how she was really feeling for fear of appearing weak.
In 2018, shortly after the Duty of Care in Sport review was conducted by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Sarah felt that not enough was being done to support elite athletes with their mental health. Through conversations with those that she trained with, she realised that she was not alone in how she was feeling.
“I remember one day at training, I was crying during a fencing practice. And anyone who remembers me from when I was training with them will know that fencing was just not my sport, as not my favourite discipline. And I struggled a lot with it.
“And my coach came up to me and just said, “Is it just is it your hormones at this time of the month?”. That wasn't the first time it has happened either. Occasions like that made me realise there is actually very little support, or awareness, for mental health.”
Sarah then began her journey into academia, exploring how athletes can prepare themselves for the challenges they will undoubtedly face throughout their career. Through conducting literature reviews into the prevalence of mental health challenges in athletes and the effects mental health challenges can have on performance. She then settled on investigating the role mental toughness plays in the mental health of athletes.
“What was surprising for was actually how high the prevalence of mental health symptoms was”, she says.
“The overall conclusion that I came to was around half the population of athletes who have participated in these studies displayed some level of mental health disorder symptoms. You can compare this to the figures for the general population which is somewhere between one and six and one and four. Mental health disorder symptoms were far more prevalent in athletes than the general population.
“If the prevalence is so high, something does need to be done, you know, more attention needs to be paid to it, or an environment needs to be created, where athletes do feel like they're supported.”
But aren’t athletes mentally ‘tough’? Is it wrong to assume that through experience athletes develop ways of ensuring they maintain a good level of mental health?
“As expected, the results suggested that the more mentally tough you are, the fewer symptoms you would have.
But the interesting thing was when you looked at the individual results. One athlete had the highest mental toughness score of the sample, but the lowest wellness score. You had a really strong athlete who was feeling rubbish.”
The research suggested that whilst athletes are better and more open when talking about their mental health, a significant shift can be made by subtly changing the language we use. The concept of ‘mental toughness’ is now being talked about more and more. Sportspeople are arguably the most physically fit people on the planet but that does not necessarily automatically make them mentally ‘strong’ as well.
“The definition [of mental toughness] is the ability to cope with adversity. Sports specific mental toughness is the ability to overcome athletic challenges.
“The results have shown that usually if your mental toughness is higher, you'll have fewer symptoms of mental health disorders.
“We can phrase support as an intervention to strengthen an athlete’s mental toughness to protect against mental health issues. This is a good way to create an intervention if the stigma around talking about mental health is still there.”
As we continue to improve support for mental health, and in particular in sport, we are seeing a marked shift in the way it is approached. With changes being made that address a ‘more than medals’ approach, we can be positive about the direction we are going in.
There is a responsibility on everybody who has a duty of care to athletes up and down the country to promote good mental health in sport. This research proves the progress that is being made and everybody must keep working hard to ensure every sportsperson receives the support they need at every stage of their life.
Last updated December 2020.