Human Performance Performance Psychology | 14.05.18

Mental Health Awareness Week: Is Your Team Doing Enough?

We reflect on some mental wellbeing initiatives that show a sporting world slowly shaking off the stigma that surrounds matters of the mind.

“Everybody struggles. It’s OK to ask for help,” says the Lift The Weight campaign. This initiative, run by the Rugby Players’ Association [RPA] in England, was one of the first of its kind to tackle the stigma related to mental health within sport. Lift The Weight demonstrates the growing emphasis placed on mental wellbeing as being a crucial component of performance.

By John Portch

As the UK marks national Mental Health Awareness Week, the Leaders Performance Institute is looking to do our bit through the prism of global sport. The growing awareness and understanding of the problems that can affect elite athletes mean that the topic has never been far from our agenda.

Earlier this year, we were able to visit the RPA ourselves at their HQ in Twickenham as we discussed Lift The Weight for the Leaders Performance Podcast. In the hotseat that afternoon was Caroline Guthrie, the RPA’s Senior Personal Development Manager, who played an instrumental role in a campaign that has brought together former players in support of their contemporaries and current pros.

Central to their efforts has been the promotion of a culture of openness where one did not previously exist and, through storytelling, give athletes and former athletes the opportunity to share their experiences. Guthrie goes on to explain that periods of transition, whether that’s during an injury or as a player moves towards retirement, can also take a mental toll. This does not need to be the case.

Lift The Weight is not alone in its believe that mental wellbeing is not something you merely tackle once something has gone wrong. We spoke to Larry Lauer, a Mental Skills Specialist at the United States Tennis Association [USTA] Player Development Program, who explained that his organisation is working to instil mental skills as another tool in the armoury of its adolescent players. He stresses that the USTA’s program remains a work in progress but, as the homespun success of Sloane Stephens at last year’s US Open demonstrated, the organisation’s focus on stress as a positive force in sport looks like a step in the right direction.

And if you’re facing that performance stress in the first place then it’s a clear sign that you are where you’re meant to be. That’s the message the Chicago Cubs worked to instil in the build-up to their World Series victory in 2016, says Joshua Lifrak, the club’s Director of its Mental Skills Program. Be present, not perfect is the message that emanates from Wrigley Field and is designed to help players on the field with the inevitable setbacks. Beyond the ballpark, former Cubs catcher John Baker, who now serves as the organisation’s Mental Skills Coordinator, is working to help players achieve a better work-life balance.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Andrés Iniesta of Barcelona – a Fifa World Cup winner with Spain and one of the most decorated and widely lauded players of his generation – shared the tale of his rise to the top through his book The Artist. In amongst all the goals and the glory was a chapter titled ‘The Abyss’ which documents his battle with depression in the wake of a teammate’s untimely death and a lingering injury. The club, mindful of supporting one of their finest assets, gave Iniesta everything that he needed on his path to recovery. Read on for a tale that illustrates that even the best can suffer.

We wrap up this round-up with another dose of the Leaders Performance Podcast, with forensic psychiatrist and former soccer player Ceri Evans, who now works at English Premier League side Arsenal. Evans was joined by David Priestley, who works for Arsenal as Head of Psychology & Personal Development, to discuss creating a culture of humanity in sport and why it’s risky to make prejudgments about players’ ability to handle stress. Also on the agenda was the effects of positive and negative thinking and why both can be distorting.