Switch the Play reiterates the importance of emotional training in athletes

15 May Switch the Play reiterates the importance of emotional training in athletes

Stress amongst elite athletes could be better managed with regular ‘emotional hygiene’ examinations and guidance on how to handle life outside sport says Stuart Holliday, Associate of Switch the Play (StP).

While being part of a sporting institution can be an excellent experience for an athlete, it can also quickly become very stressful if results aren’t going well, performance drops, an injury is incurred or, possibly the worst-case scenario, the career suddenly ends.

Stuart explains, “Athletes training in sports institutions are given a great deal of support when it comes to their physical health and training schedules, to ensure they stay at their physical peak. Add to this the advice around nutrition and help with injuries from the team’s physiotherapist and physically they are able to reach their optimum level of performance.

“However, more could be done during this time to prepare athletes for their life out of sport, as identified by the Government’s recent Mental Health Action Plan. Talking about a Plan B is a bit of a taboo subject in the sporting world because people consider it as thinking of ‘failure’ when it really has nothing to do with that.”

In the Government’s Mental Health Action plan for elite sport, planning for a life outside of sport, has been credited as making a positive contribution to an athlete’s career. In his role at StP, Stuart works with clubs, organisations and athletes, to raise awareness about the value of preparing for the end of a career as early as possible.

“StP helps athletes develop as whole people,” explains Stuart. “If athletes have been on a talent pathway and involved in a sport their whole lives, they often have difficulty seeing beyond and into a life outside of their institutional bubble. That isn’t to say sports aren’t providing opportunities for athletes to emotionally grow outside of the four walls they mainly inhabit, but time is pinched, other commitments such as community work or sponsorship (often needed to provide an income after sport) and other factors can interfere and limit the self-development time young people often benefit from.

“At StP we have masterclasses and workshops that help athletes identify some of the transferable skills that could be used to create a successful life outside of sport. A staggering number of athletes have not really thought about what career they might pursue after sport and those that have given it some thought say they would have welcomed guidance much earlier in their career.”

Stuart has experienced first-hand the unique stress factors affecting elite and performance athletes during his time in the Sport Science team for Olympic Archery for the Rio games, Paralympic Swimming, England Netball and Liverpool FC Academy. The role of Performance Lifestyle advisors in some of these sports has been crucial in helping athletes better manage life beyond sport (whether during or after their career), but as with the psychologist’s role in elite sports, there is only so much time for each advisor can support the full transition part of an athlete’s life.

“Elite programmes have come on leaps and bounds when it comes to identifying the need for athletes to have psychological support throughout their careers. It would be good, however, if athletes were given a clear understanding of how to identify when they may need to access this, and the process required to obtain it. That’s where better emotional hygiene guidance could be better taught in order to prevent more in-depth or acute problems down the line.” explains Stuart.

“Depending on the level of engagement or interest by an athlete, or what psychological self-development is offered on elite programmes, many athletes won’t follow a structured plan to manage their emotional well-being. Introducing reflection and accurate progress monitoring could be two tools to help the balance between achieving goals and identifying chronic stress factors.”

Stuart recognises that acute stress isn’t always a bad thing for athletes, because it can motivate them to reach goals and perform better, however education is still required around identifying when this moves into a chronic phase and becomes debilitating and harmful.

Chronic stress is more dangerous because it becomes a normal mental state for an individual and they can become incapable of functioning without it. Within sport, given the physical demands, it can be hard to determine some of the symptoms given that high levels of training can leave athletes feeling constantly tired and lethargic.

To find out if Switch the Play could help you or your club, visit www. Switchtheplay.com or email stuart.holliday@switchtheplay.com.