The Importance of Mental Well-being In Sport
Successful sports people encompass a variety of different attributes in order to succeed in their chosen discipline. The most obvious of the non-tangible qualities include commitment, dedication, a great work-ethic and to be immensely disciplined. The traits that are more apparent, and depend a greater amount on the support structures around them are the physical and dietary aspects.
This article will discuss a feature of competitive sport that seems to have become lost in the background in the Irish sporting world; psychology. In a time where mental health and well-being is becoming less of a taboo subject, where people are being encouraged to speak about their issues and not to feel isolated because of them, this change is unfortunately not permeating through to the sporting bodies of this country and developing alongside the societal change that is occurring.
The basis for this article is focused on international level swimming. I interviewed three athletes who all swam internationally. These athletes have also retired from competitive sport between the ages of 18-22, after spending over a decade in this relentless and seldom rewarding environment. From an outside perspective, the reasons for their respective retirements were not due to anything blatantly obvious. As is always the case, a person’s reasons for retirement are entirely personal, however they can all profess that mental exhaustion which was causing an “inability to progress any further” (Therese Corry) was the prime reason.
I also spoke to Stephen McIvor, who is one of the top sports psychologists in the country, and works with a vast number of athletes from a variety of different sporting backgrounds. He is currently completing his doctorate on “The individual and psychosocial factors that elicit mental toughness” from The University of Central Lancashire. As a retired Irish Rugby Union player who has won three caps for Ireland from the years 1996-1997, Stephen has extensive experience in both the background, and the foreground of competitive sport.
To gain a general sense of the importance someone working in that sector would place on the psychological side of sport, I asked “How important is mental well-being in sport, in terms of mental strength and resistance?” His response was “Well-being and psychology are massively important in sport, but it’s also important across the spectrum. There are stressors in most walks of life, so it’s about the individual taking ownership; owning their sport, understanding their sport, understanding themselves to ultimately enjoy their sport and enjoy other aspects of their life.”
Following on from this, I asked him “Do you think that sporting bodies in Ireland provide adequate education and facilities around this topic to their athletes?”. He said “I would say it’s lacking. In the sporting realm, some people are looking for a quick fix, and then some coaches and some performance organisations are not that aware, not that knowledgeable and somewhat fearful at times. Now thankfully, because of people like Peter Seligman and Carol Dweck, we are moving towards a much more positive psychology understanding. But still, the leadership in sport like coaches, often don’t have that understanding so they can be reluctant.”
When asked the same questions, the athletes seemed to have a similar opinion on these matters. Therese Corry (22), who has trained in the High Performance Centre(HPC) at the National Aquatic Centre for over five years, felt that during the duration of her swimming career, at no point in time was there the correct facilities provided to her to assist in the mental struggles she was facing. “I never felt that I was given the help I needed. I was referred in the right direction but felt like I should have been receiving these sessions as part of the programme I was on.”
When asked if there were ever discrepancies amongst her team-mates in this sense, Corry replied with “Yes, I had to pay 70-90 euro per session whereas other team mates got it for free who probably didn't require it as much. As it is something that effects everyone differently just like physical training, some people have to work harder at it than others.”
To get a sense of how a scenario of approaching their coach with a problem they were facing would unravel, I asked Ali Berry (20), who was a team-mate of Corry’s at HPC, “Did you feel that there was enough emphasis placed on the mental side of sport by your coaches?”, to which she responded “No, not at all, I feel like they mainly focused on our physical well-being, however not enough emphasis was placed upon the mental aspect.”
Laoise Fleming, an athlete that showed immense potential as a junior swimmer, quit the sport when she was just eighteen years old. She told me of how her mother and her used to get up at 3:30am three mornings a week to make it to a training session for 5am. Her days consisted of travelling to and from the pool, eating her meals in the car, and attending school in between. Her swimming CV gleams with success, including an array of international competitions.
She explained that there is a mentality amongst some coaches that ‘small’ problems are easily put to one side “the smaller problems were easier to deal with anyway (for him). It was easy for him to tell you how great you are, and to keep going and that eventually things will come together.” She expressed to me the difficulty that she faced with coming to the decision to leave the sport, “when it came to me quitting. I don’t think he knew how to handle it and I don’t think he took me seriously either. He told me to speak to one of the older athletes, when he should have really told me to go and see a specialist.”
From the evidence that was gathered for this piece, there is clearly room for improvement in the form of educating the sporting bodies of this country, and creating greater and more concrete structures surrounding the mental aspects of sport.