BY TAYLOR BROWN
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
The World Health Organization estimates that depression affects 264 million people worldwide.
The NCAA recently reported that mental-health concerns among student-athletes have doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Professional athletes such as Aly Raisman and Michael Phelps have shared their mental-health stories. It’s clear that being a high-performing athlete does not safeguard you against mental-health challenges.
With mental health in the global spotlight, it is crucial to equip yourself with the knowledge to support athletes.
Mental illness, mental health, and mental performance can all affect an athlete’s experience, which makes it important to understand the relationship and distinctions among the three.
Mental Health and Mental Performance
Mental health and mental performance frequently get conflated.
Mental health is a dynamic internal state in which people can navigate effectively the psychological, emotional, and social aspects of their experience.
Mental performance, on the other hand, describes the psychological components of performance and the skills used to enhance it.
While they are distinct, mental health and mental performance interact with each other. Elements of mental health, such as self-acceptance, environmental mastery, and autonomy, play a supporting role in mental performance.
Similarly, effective mental performance such as visualization, goal-setting, and attention regulation can assist in promoting mental health by enhancing things like self-efficacy and self-confidence.
“An athlete’s mental health is directly related to their performance, so it’s really hard to address one without the other,” said Tim Pineau, a clinical psychologist and former rower.
Mental-health issues such as anxiety and stress can manifest inside and outside of performance contexts, so the lines can sometimes seem blurred.
Where the distinction between mental performance and mental health lies is the focus of each and who is qualified to help.
“With mental-performance consultation, the focus is explicitly on performance,” Pineau said. “For instance, how do you focus on performance despite feeling anxious? Whereas addressing mental-health issues may focus on understanding the root cause and reducing the anxiety overall.”
In mental performance, enhancing performance is the focus, and in mental health, addressing well-being is the focus. But, of course, an athlete’s well-being impacts performance, so it’s important to keep both in mind, and it’s imperative to recognize when a mental-health issue, such as excessive stress, crosses the line into a mental illness.
Mental illness is when someone meets diagnostic criteria for a disorder, though a person can be struggling or experiencing a mental-health crisis and still not meet the criteria for a disorder.
While mental illness has the potential to affect performance negatively, as with any medical condition (e.g., diabetes), a well-managed disorder may not impact performance at all.
My athlete is struggling. Who can help?
Unconditionally supporting athletes in crisis, whether performance- or mental health-related, is the first step toward helping them thrive, even if that means de-prioritizing performance to focus on well-being.
Finding professional help is the next step, and it is important that you know whom to seek out.
Mental-performance consultants are qualified through performance-oriented certifications and degrees, such as the Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) credential from the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
If your athlete is struggling with issues such as performance anxiety, confidence, and emotional regulation, a performance coach can help. A registry of CMPC’s is at https://appliedsportpsych.org/.
Qualified mental-health professionals must have at least a graduate degree in a helping profession and licensure. These helping professionals can address mental-health issues and mental illness.
If your athlete is struggling with issues such as depression or generalized anxiety, find a mental-health professional. A registry of mental-health professionals is at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.
Advocate for athletes. Whether they are struggling with performance anxiety or facing a mental-health issue, there are resources to help.