As the mental health of athletes comes under more scrutiny than ever before due issues affecting Simon Biles, Naomi Osaka, Tyrone Mings and Ben Stokes among others, former professional footballer and now academic in the University of Salford Business School, Dr Alex Culvin, discusses the pressures that come with being an elite performer.
Dr Culvin said: “There has been an expansion of research and discussion around the mental health of elite athletes, as researchers and the general public alike come to recognise elite athletes are susceptible to mental health symptoms, just like the rest of the population.
“But unlike the rest of the population there are distinct and unique pressures at work associated with being an elite athlete: media, performance, financial - the list goes on, all of which fuel the expectation for athletes to be mentally tough. Typically, in elite sport spaces mental signs of fragility are seen as weakness to performance, mental health and mental toughness are seen in opposition in elite sport culture. Yet 2021 and the Tokyo Olympics specifically has shone a light on the mental health of athletes previously unseen before.
“A potential solution, by no means a silver bullet, is to have a holistic view of mental health, so to consider the ‘whole’ person, to recognise mental health as a core component of performance and develop our screening processes for athlete mental health, finally to listen and support athletes when they highlight mental health concerns.
“While some adverse reaction emerged in the media, these athletes are challenging the persistent, dominant narrative around our perceptions of sporting strength. Why should we expect athletes to push through a mental health injury but not a hamstring tear?
“Biles and Osaka are not only elite performers in their sports field, but they are also spearheading the charge to shift the narrative around mental toughness and mental health, and for that they should be applauded.”