Athlete Mental Health: How Can Athletes Improve Mental Health?

Athletes are tough. Athletes are strong. Athletes are courageous. But do you know what athletes are also? Human.

Being human, athletes are susceptible to the same struggles we all are, both physically and mentally. Sometimes even more so, due to the stress and pressure they’re placed under on a daily basis.

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of athlete mental health. Professionals from different sports have stepped forward, being leaders and role models for athletes around the world struggling against an unseen enemy.

This uptick in recognition has also posed an additional question: how can athletes improve their mental health?

As a mental performance coach who works directly with athletes in this specific field, the answer I propose is simple…action!

Two aspects of Improving Athlete Mental Health

The reason I say action is the answer lies in the ineffectiveness of awareness if not followed by action. Now, awareness is one of the most effective things there is…if it leads to steps towards progress. However, sometimes we forget those steps.

We can find ourselves caught, unable to move, and unsure of where to go. Action is the remedy for such ineffectiveness.

As an athlete, once mental health struggles are recognized, you must move beyond awareness; taking the necessary steps in the direction of improvement. In doing so, there are two main aspects to focus on: making the decision to step away and proactive training.

Making the Decision to Step Away

The first aspect is necessary when you’re at a breaking point. You simply can’t take it any longer, and there is no sign of hope as long as you’re caught in the middle of the storm; surging waves of anxiety, self-doubt, perfectionism, and many others relentlessly crashing over you.

In that situation, what can you do?

Well, the best bet is to step away. Not forever…just for a moment. Allowing yourself the opportunity to return to neutral.

This first aspect is where awareness plays a large role. You must recognize what’s going on inside your mind. If you don’t, there’s no way anyone else will. The reason athlete mental health challenges are so dangerous is that they are invisible.

Yeah, your actions will likely mirror the darkness inside, but not at all to the extent you experience. I can attest from personal experience, and from watching others, that athletes are good at putting on a mask.

You’ve learned how to do it when it comes to covering up pain from training, and so it’s no different when it comes to covering up pain born in your mind.

However, the time for hiding is over. That is the best part of the increase in awareness; more athletes are recognizing how natural it is to experience mental health struggles. It is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign you are human.

Weakness needs to be associated with covering up your challenges, being too afraid to face them head-on and take down the beast for good. And sometimes, such action first requires you to take a step away from the game for a moment.

When you step away, this provides immediate relief from the struggles you are facing. Not all of them, of course, but the most powerful and active ones.

You will no longer be under constant pressure and scrutiny to perform. Though, this can also provide a false sense of progress. Undoubtedly, you will begin to feel better. That doesn’t mean your mental health challenges have improved, as much as they have simply been avoided.

Now, if you quit your sport for good, maybe the struggles will be subdued long-term. But that is also likely not going to happen, because your mind is still your mind. It will be faced with further pressures and stressors in the future.

That’s why we have the second aspect of improving your mental health as an athlete: proactive training.

"The reason mental health challenges are so dangerous is that they are invisible."

Proactive Training

To incorporate proactive training, you do not first have to step away. The majority of the athletes that have worked with me did so while continuing to compete. The reason I began with stepping away was to show you it is a strong and viable option.

Either way, whether you step away or not, the principle of proactive training remains the same: working to actively strengthen your mindset and build positive mental skills to overcome mental challenges and improve your mental health as an athlete.

There is danger in declaring this is the way that I am. That’s what the idea of proactive training keeps from happening. You recognize that right now, yes, you are struggling with mental health challenges. But it’s nothing that cannot be fixed!

It is through such conviction true progress is made.

Now, you may be wondering how proactive training works if there are certain mental health concerns that need to be addressed. Well, it is through such training that improvement is made on the aspects of the mind which are causing trouble.

For instance, anxiety is a leading mental health concern for athletes. This stems from the pressure to perform well, both from yourself and from other people.

Through proactive training, we examine where this anxiety is coming from and why it’s occurring. However, we can’t change the fact that outcomes exist in sports or that your coach wants you to play well (both of which are leading causes of anxiety).

What we can change, however, is your mindset. We can alter the way you’re speaking to yourself, how you view the situation, and how you respond. All of these help to decrease the negative impact of anxiety, and alleviate the stress experienced in your mind.

It is only through awareness we gain insight into what’s wrong. From there, knowledge will only prove valuable if it is transferred into action.

"There is danger in declaring this is the way that I am. That’s what the idea of proactive training keeps from happening. You recognize that right now, yes, you are struggling with mental health challenges. But it’s nothing that cannot be fixed!"

What Can You Do, Right Now, to Improve Your Mental Health?

Now that you know the two aspects of improving athlete mental health, how can this be applied to you? If right now, you are struggling with your own mental health in your sport, what steps can be taken?

Well, if you’ve made it this far in the article, I imagine you know that what I’m going to say involves action…and you’re right!

But once again, action is only valuable if it comes from a place of understanding. So, for the rest of this article, I’ve listed out steps you can take as an athlete to immediately take control of your mental health.

Step #1: Take a Personal Inventory

The first step you must take is to look at yourself honestly. This isn’t going to be easy, but true growth never is.

To make this practice have the most impact, don’t keep it in your mind. Get yourself a pen and a piece of paper and begin to make a list.

On one side of the paper write your strengths and the other side write what challenges you’re currently facing. It’s important that you include your strengths because the aim isn’t to completely tear yourself down…you’re taking an assessment of your mind in order to improve.

Do the strengths first, then move on to the challenges. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help with this step:

  • What are the main mental game challenges I’m currently facing?
  • How do I feel on a daily basis? What word would I use to describe that feeling?
  • What specifically about my sport do I worry about or do I dread?
  • Do I enjoy playing anymore? If not, how come? What specifically is keeping me from enjoying myself?
  • Do I feel unmotivated? If so, why?
  • If I were completely honest with myself, not afraid of how others would judge me or how I would even judge myself, how would I rate my mental health? What specifically is the main challenge, that if worked on and improved, would greatly alter my mood and the overall state of my mindset?

This step is so helpful because of the information you gather. Now, remember earlier when we were discussing awareness? This is that dangerous part of mental health I warned you about.

Don’t get caught in this step. Do not beat yourself up or get frustrated at why you are feeling the way you are or why you can’t handle the pressure, anxiety, or whatever else is currently a challenge.

Awareness is powerful if it is followed by action. Action you are about to take. So don’t get down on yourself. Feel happy that you now have clearer insight than most into what’s holding you back.

It’s now time to make a change!

Step #2: Decide Whether or Not to Step Away

There’s no one who can answer this question except for you. Not your coaches, your parents, or anyone else. You must honestly think, “Is stepping away the best option?”

Do you need some time to return to neutral? Do you need to remove the main stressor leading to your mental health challenges?

Or, are you determined to continue playing through your challenges, knowing that while you do, you will be taking steps to strengthen your mindset?

No matter what your answer is, one fact remains the same…the next part of your path towards growth takes work.

Just because you choose to step away, don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’re better just because you removed the stressor. Stepping away serves the purpose of putting you in a position where you can begin making improvements.

Because sometimes, the challenge is so great, no matter what tools you use, it’s extremely difficult to improve under that level of stress.

So, decide for yourself: is the best option for you to step away, or are you going to keep playing?

"Just because you choose to step away, don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’re better just because you removed the stressor. Stepping away serves the purpose of putting you in a position where you can begin making improvements."

Step #3: Begin Changing Your Thinking

Athlete mental health challenges are directly linked to your thinking. If you want to improve your mental health as an athlete, your thoughts have to be given attention.

I know it can seem at times like your thoughts are out of your control. Like they happen and you are forced to endure whatever emotions they produce. But the truth is, your thoughts are in your control…even if they don’t feel like it right now.

From this point forward, you can take action to reclaim power over the thoughts filling your head.

Now, why is this such an efficient way of improving your mental health as an athlete?

It’s due to the fact that your thoughts directly influence your emotions. Therefore, if you are thinking anxious thoughts, you are generating anxious feelings. Likewise, if you are thinking depressive thoughts, you are generating depressive feelings.

Shifting your internal dialogue to one of positivity, optimism, and self-belief will have a dramatic effect on your mood.

Step #4: Practice Gratitude

A basketball player came to me who was struggling with high levels of anxiety. Yes, it was centered around basketball, but it also impacted other areas of his life. In his own words, he was an anxious person.

During our first session, I introduced the idea of gratitude. He’d performed it in the past, but not on a consistent basis. Instead of merely telling him to be more grateful for things in his life, we turned it into a practice (something I highly recommend you do as well).

He began to make a list each day of everything he was grateful for. This included things within basketball, but also all areas of his life.

His feedback was that after a week of doing this, he was already experiencing less anxiety and was finding himself viewing basketball and life in general in a more grateful way.

I’ve seen gratitude have an impact on other people’s lives, like with the basketball player, as well as my own. The reason it works so well to improve mental health is due to the effect it has on your outlook on life.

Taking a more grateful approach leaves less room for anxiety, depression, doubt, and fear.

So for yourself, adopt a more grateful view. And don’t just adopt one in thought, make it an active practice.

"I’ve seen gratitude have an impact on other people’s lives, like with the basketball player, as well as my own. The reason it works so well to improve mental health is due to the effect it has on your outlook on life."

Step #5: Bring Joy into Your Game

The higher you climb in your sport, the easier it is to lose the love for the game. More pressure is added and more expectations are felt. What used to be something you did for fun has now turned into a job. Sometimes a job you dread.

When little love is left in your game, the anxiety, fear, doubt, and many other mental challenges you face are heightened. No longer are they met with a smile. Instead, they produce an overpowering shadow.

Working to improve your mental health as an athlete requires you to bring that joy once more back into your game. Find small aspects that are fun. Feel like a kid again. Smile and love the ups and downs of your sport.

Refuse to allow anything to keep you from enjoying the game…even yourself.

Sometimes reclaiming love is as simple as adjusting your attention. Rather than looking to find what’s wrong within your game, begin asking yourself questions like, “What did I enjoy today?”

Look, I know it’s corny. I know it seems weird and can feel like if you do this, you don’t care about winning and being a strong competitor. But here’s the harsh truth; the path you’re on is only going to lead to destruction.

You will not reach your full potential or be the competitor you want to be by continuing to be at the mercy of your mental health challenges.

Your goal is to play your best and win. That is done by having a mind that’s an asset, rather than a liability. Something that can happen when you begin to bring joy back into your game.

"Sometimes reclaiming love is as simple as adjusting your attention. Rather than looking to find what’s wrong within your game, begin asking yourself questions like: what did I enjoy today?"

Step #6: Seek Help

The last step (which doesn’t have to be the last step at all) is to seek help.

I’m a huge advocate for being self-reliant. But as a mental performance coach who works with athletes, I know that help can quicken the process.

When you work with a professional, whether it be a sports psychologist, a mental performance coach, or a traditional therapist, they will help you understand yourself better, challenge you to examine situations from new perspectives, and teach you tools you can use to improve.

The key when looking for someone to help improve your mental health, is to find someone you feel comfortable with. This person is going to ask you to be honest and vulnerable with them…be sure you are comfortable with that and feel as though you can trust them.

If you do find someone like that, it can make all the difference in the world.

Final Thoughts

Athletes are strong, courageous, and self-disciplined individuals who push themselves both physically and mentally to be their best.

However, athletes are also human. They are vulnerable to mental health challenges just as anyone is. Even more so at times, due to the increased pressure and stress they are under.

So, how can athletes work to improve their mental health?

Well, the answer lies in the word work. It takes work to strengthen your mindset. But a word I like even better is action! Action gives you the feeling that you are in control. You are taking steps towards improving your mental health each day.

To aid you in this work, sometimes a professional is required. If you are interested in learning about the one-on-one mental performance coaching offered here at Success Starts Within, click here.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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