There have recently been a number of athletes bravely coming forward to share their stories about the psychological distress challenges they have experienced.
Research has long suggested that athletes participating in sport, particularly at competitive and elite levels, may be at-risk of experiencing psychological distress and associated mental disturbance. In many cases this is due to the various sport-specific stressors they may face, such as sustaining athletic injury, conflict with teammates, and pressures to achieve success.
In response to these stressors, athletes may suffer from impaired mental health including anxiety, depression, disordered eating, self-harm, suicidal ideation and alcohol or substance dependency. Coaches within fencing can influence the likelihood of athletes coming forward and seeking help, either positively or negatively.
As the coach and athlete interact frequently, coaches are in a good position to assume a role in supporting the wellbeing of athletes. As such, it is important that coaches are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and the confidence in their ability, to support the psychological wellbeing of their athletes.
Coaches should also recognise their own limitations within their role and have the awareness to connect athletes with professional resources when instances of psychological distress require such intervention.
Four key barriers have been identified:
The first barrier is centred around the emphasis traditional sport cultures place on the demonstration of mental toughness. Mental health challenges are often stigmatised within sport and perceived by athletes to be a sign of weakness. Consequently, athletes fear disclosure because they do not want coaches to label them as weak.
A second barrier is the power coaches hold in their relationship with athletes. They can control who participates, which athletes will compete and determine selections. Athletes fear disclosure because they worry coaches will perceive their performance abilities as being impaired by their psychological distress and subsequently lose playing time.
The third barrier faced by athletes relates to previous negative experiences with disclosure. Athletes are sensitive and highly attuned to the responses of their coaches when disclosing any personal challenges, ranging from mild injuries to more serious distress. If athletes perceive a negative coach response during these instances of disclosure, it subsequently discourages them from future help-seeking and reinforces a mindset that sport is not a welcoming environment for distress.
The topic of psychological distress was not widely discussed in sport. This contributed to the barrier of poor visibility of distress in sport and resulted in many athletes struggling to recognize their own symptoms.
The aim is to foster team cultures and values to support the psychological wellbeing of athletes and encourage help-seeking behaviours. Some potential culture setting practices are:
To address the emphasis placed by traditional sport cultures on athlete toughness, our coaches have adopted more holistic coaching. This is being achieved through a demonstrated focus on athlete wellness, which includes the partnership with the True Athlete Project. Tactics like the mindfulness approach and running athlete sessions on perceived difficult subject areas such as discrimination, help to develop a greater understanding of positive behaviours and encourages athletes to strive for balanced lifestyles. This approach can help to improve an athlete’s general subjective wellbeing, which in turn often enhances performance abilities.
Minimizing power differentials between athletes and coaches involves developing open and honest coach-athlete relationships. By creating the opportunities for more athletes to input more often in the learning and development process and scheduling regular meetings will help the coach-athlete relationship strengthen.
Overcoming athletes’ previous negative experiences with disclosure will be a slow process that is achieved through observational learning. This requires coaches to make a conscious effort to respond positively when addressing any concerns brought to them by their athletes.
Greater visibility surrounding psychological distress in sport can be achieved by open conversation and by coaches speaking openly with their athletes about mental health, whether through anecdotal stories or their own personal experiences.
Coaches start to use general techniques to help develop positive team cultures surrounding psychological distress and help-seeking. Such techniques include coaches engaging in positive role modelling by tending to their own psychological wellbeing. Coaches should remain aware of their words and avoid using discriminatory language that could contribute to the stigma surrounding distress and mental health.
Where athletes have accessed the appropriate resources, coaches should engage in the following long-term support practices:
Traditional perceptions around psychological distress in sport are often stigmatizing and discourage athletes from seeking help. Within the Pathway, BF is continuing to work to develop the culture to support wellbeing. Some future BF actions include:
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