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Maximizing Mental Health and Performance- Personal Strategies for Elite Athletes:

Every individual aspires to experience fulfillment and thrive in life (5). However, the journey is often filled with challenging situations that demand resilience and can be stressful. Elite athletes, despite their successes, also face failures, injuries, negative life events, and retirement. Some athletes possess the capacity to overcome these challenges, while others struggle and suffer. The inability to handle extreme pressure can hinder an athlete's ability to thrive. In elite sports, several athletes have struggled with mental health issues, some of which have led to mental illness and, tragically, even suicide (2).

Throughout an elite athlete's career, they can encounter up to 640 stressors that may contribute to mental disorders (1). These stressors include factors such as recovering from injury, facing selection pressure, and scrutiny from the media. It is evident that many elite athletes lack an understanding of the importance of mental health and how to effectively optimize and maintain it (8).

Consequently, they become more susceptible to mental health issues, leading to a decline in performance (23).

Defining Thriving: Thriving refers to the process of development and success that enables athletes to consistently function and sustain their performance (5). Holistic functioning, where mental health and performance are at high levels, is key to thriving (19). This means that an athlete's individual factors, such as mindset, play a crucial role in maintaining their mental health and performance over an extended period.

Thriving in Performance: Thriving in performance involves executing skills at a high-quality level and sustaining them over time while maintaining high levels of well-being (5). This requires the athlete to be physically fit and healthy, mentally strong, socially competent, and emotionally regulated. Thriving encompasses all aspects of performance, including physical, tactical, technical, and mental dimensions. To succeed in an elite sports environment and in life outside of sports, athletes must have the necessary resources to thrive under pressure (20). Neglecting mental health, even while maximizing performance, can lead to negative outcomes such as injuries and burnout, leaving athletes vulnerable and suffering (17).

Mental Health in Elite Sport: Although mental health awareness is increasing, significant barriers still exist. There is a pervasive stigma surrounding mental health within the sporting culture, making athletes reluctant to seek support or speak out. The pressure to maintain a perception of "mental toughness" prevents athletes from openly discussing their mental health challenges (3). This culture of mental toughness can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment when athletes are diagnosed with mental disorders, perpetuating the stigma (7).

As a result, athletes often suppress their emotions, presenting a facade of happiness or isolating themselves to avoid negative judgment (22). Unhealthy coping mechanisms and neglecting mental health eventually take a toll, leading to further complications in both performance and well-being. Mental health in elite sport is often seen through the lens of illness, exacerbating the stigma and hindering athletes' understanding of mental health (12).

Sport-Specific Definition of Mental Health: To increase knowledge and understanding, a sport-specific definition of mental health has been developed to help elite athletes relate to it. Mental health is defined as "not merely the absence of illness but a state of well-being in which those involved in competitive sport realize their purpose and potential, cope with sport demands and life stressors, work productively and fruitfully, act autonomously according to personal values, make a contribution to their community, and feel supported when required" (4). Understanding the signs of mental illness is essential for increasing awareness and promoting early intervention (14).

Personal Facilitators for Thriving: Personal facilitators contribute to optimal performance and mental health. These are the qualities individuals possess that positively influence confidence, motivation, focus, and overall mindset, enabling them to manage and overcome challenges in performance and everyday life (6). Personal facilitators can only flourish when athletes value and are committed to their career development while prioritizing their mental health (5).

Positive Outlook: Maintaining a positive outlook is crucial. Athletes need to feel optimistic, confident in their abilities, and have high self-esteem. They must recognize their own value, believe in themselves, and maintain this mindset when faced with stress or challenges (20).

Techniques for a Positive Outlook: Positive self-talk is an effective technique to combat negative thoughts and feelings (13). Athletes can reinforce positive statements such as "I am good enough," "I am special," and "I am important" to transform their mindset over time. Gratitude is another valuable technique that helps athletes focus on the positives in life, realizing how lucky they are and fostering a mindset of abundance (9).

Proactive Approach: Proactive athletes strive to reach their potential by continuously learning, being open to new experiences, and challenging themselves. They have a growth mindset and are highly passionate about their sport, viewing it as meaningful and valuable (10). Taking responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors allows athletes to grow and develop.

Techniques for Being Proactive: Reflection is a powerful tool for self-awareness and emotional regulation (15). By asking themselves questions, athletes can gain a deeper understanding of their emotions, reactions, and coping mechanisms. Goal-setting is another essential technique for proactive athletes. Reflecting on their mental state and identifying areas for improvement enables them to create action plans and set achievable goals to optimize their mental health and sustain performance (17).

Sense of Control: Athletes who possess a sense of control can effectively manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors under various conditions. They remain focused on relevant information and do not get easily distracted. Being in control allows athletes to adapt, concentrate on the present moment, and consistently execute their skills at a high level. It also helps in building quality relationships and working efficiently with others (24).

Techniques for Control: Mindfulness is a valuable technique to stay present, calm, and relaxed (19). By practicing mindfulness, athletes can reduce anxiety and stress, enabling them to feel more in control during training and competition. Breathing exercises are also effective for controlling anxiety and promoting relaxation. By focusing solely on their breathing and blocking out distractions, athletes can regulate their somatic anxiety and achieve a state of calm (16).

Achieving Balance: Maintaining balance in life is challenging, particularly for elite athletes who face numerous demands such as training, competitions, and media obligations. However, finding balance is crucial to prevent overtraining, burnout, and maintain a healthy identity outside of sport. Developing a multidimensional purpose beyond athletics enhances self-worth and facilitates the transition into retirement (20).

Techniques for Balance: Athletes should prioritize self-care and allocate time for relaxation and recovery from daily stressors (11). Engaging in activities that bring joy, spending time with loved ones, disconnecting from social media, and pursuing hobbies outside of sports can help athletes achieve a sense of balance in their lives.

Importance of Consistency and Support: Consistently practicing self-help techniques is essential to maximize their benefits. If athletes struggle to access support, they should reach out to someone they trust, such as a coach, sport psychologist, or a local GP (general practitioner).

To thrive in mental health and performance, elite athletes need to accept, understand, and prioritize their mental well-being. Personal facilitators play a crucial role in optimizing mental health and performance at an individual level. Utilizing techniques such as positive self-talk, gratitude, reflection, goal-setting, mindfulness, and balance can equip athletes with the internal resources necessary to thrive in their sport and in life.

References: Arnold, R., & Fletcher, D. (2012). A research synthesis and taxonomic classification of the organizational stressors encountered by sport performers. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 34(3), 397-429.


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