The past few years have been nothing short of challenging for athletes, coaches, and those in sport. As the world seemingly came to a standstill in spring of 2020, athletes and coaches grappled with the unknowns regarding their season plans. Sport psychology providers saw heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression for athletes and coaches alike. As a sport psychology consulting firm committed to understanding the intersection of performance and wellness, our team wanted to give athletes everything they needed to be at their best—both mentally and physically. In the fall of 2020 we launched a research project to answer one important question: What are the actions, thoughts, and feelings that athletes need to optimize mental health and performance?
As the sports world tries to find its rhythm once again, our team at Premier Sport Psychology is excited to share our research findings. Our findings stem from an online brainstorming, sorting, and rating process with athletes, coaches, and sport performance professionals. All participants were known for their expertise in athlete wellness and performance. The research revealed five key areas that are integral to both wellness and performance for athletes of all levels: Growth Mindset, Performance Mindset, Team Support, Physical Wellness, and Mental Wellness. We now sit on a new model for athlete wellness and performance, which we want to spread far and wide. Below we outline each key area, explain why it is important, and share ideas on how coaches can weave this into their work for their next athletic season.
Though many can agree that a growth mindset is an important skill for both sport and life, a key component to this cluster also includes self-compassion. The items “be kind to yourself when expectations aren’t met” and “be nice to yourself when you need a break” rose to the top of this category, which tells us growth mindset is not simply the ability to learn from mistakes. It also means athletes need to let go of mistakes and unhelpful thoughts when they arise. Coaches can model the importance of this by embracing their own mistakes in coaching, being willing to fail, and showing athletes that perfection is not the expectation in sport.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our team found a significant difference between male and female athletes in this category. In general, scores in this area for female athletes are lower than those for male athletes. This suggests female athletes likely have high levels of self-criticism than male athletes, which can negatively affect wellness and performance. Coaches who are working with female athletes have an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of self-compassion with their teams by reminding female athletes not to be too hard on themselves, and by helping them identify strengths in addition to growth opportunities. When your female athletes are clearly beating themselves up, help them identify the mistake, ask them what they can learn from it for next time, and remind them to let it go so they can focus on the task at hand.
A lot of coaches know a performance mindset when they see it, though it can be difficult to define. Our research revealed that the key behaviors in this domain included setting measurable short-term goals that focus on the process, creating goals that are personally meaningful, mentally preparing oneself for adversity, and using strategies to increase motivation when needed. Other important behaviors needed to develop a performance mindset include present moment focus (in and outside of competition) and setting aside time before competitions for mental preparation.
Coaches can effectively integrate these behaviors into the team culture by assigning goal-setting activities for athletes that pertain to things other than the outcome of wins or losses. At Premier Sport Psychology, we often encourage our athletes to embrace “the daily grind” of training by setting process goals on a weekly or monthly basis and continually checking in on them. We also encourage our athletes and coaches to carve out a few moments before competitions to recenter and to mentally prepare for the challenges and the performance ahead. By modeling the importance of this on the team level, athletes will be more likely to take these skills and run with them for years to come.
To optimize mental health and performance, athletes ultimately need to feel like their teammates and coaches care about their wellbeing. This means having a voice on the team, having meaningful relationships with teammates, and feeling valued by their team. Another important component to this section pertains to athlete communication. Our research shows that athletes need to communicate with coaches about what is going well (and what isn’t!) in order to maximize their wellness and team contributions. Coaches who want to focus on team support can do so by increasing opportunities for athletes to get to know one another outside of the sport. The options here are endless: team meals or retreats, engaging icebreakers, buddy systems, and even a Ted-Lasso style suggestion box. At the end of the day (or the game), we know the small things matter. Encourage your athletes to come to you with questions and concerns. If they’re unlikely to come to you, try scheduling more frequent check-ins with athletes or sending out surveys/check-ins to get a pulse on how they’re doing. The more information you have about your team dynamics, the more you can support your athletes in and outside of competition.
Our research shows that sleep is the most important component of physical wellness for athletes. Not only do athletes need enough sleep, but they need to practice good sleep habits by having a consistent bedtime and limiting late-night doom scrolling on phones and tablets. Athletes also need to fuel their body with nutrients needed to promote health and recovery. Those of us who have worked in college athletics know that sleep and nutrition are two major growth areas for many student athletes. Arguably, this category is more challenging for coaches, as they cannot be with athletes during all hours of the day (or night). Coaches can start here by providing education on the links between sleep and performance. The research is clear: not only is sleep the most important factor for athlete recovery; getting 7-9 hours of sleep can increase cognitive and physical performance in athletes. Coaches need to lead by example by setting boundaries with emails and other forms of communication with the team. Model the importance of staying hydrated, eating well, and prioritizing your sleep—even during those busy stretches of the season. Refrain from sending out late night messages or making comments about sleep deprivation. Doing so will improve your own performance while serving as a positive role model for your players.
The final key research area finding includes willingness to get professional mental health support when needed, self-reflection, and having a willingness to talk openly with others about mental and physical health. Our team at Premier Sport Psychology has seen notable improvements with respect to mental health stigma over the years as more professional and elite athletes have shared their mental health journeys. That said, we have room to grow, and coaches can serve as a major influence in this area. Encourage and normalize the use of sport psychology services by talking about it regularly and by bringing in sport psychology providers to your teams for workshops. When athletes seem more distant than usual or start behaving in atypical ways, reach out to them individually and check in on them. At Premier, we often use an analogy of a warning track. When baseball and softball players hit a fly ball, outfielders run backwards with their eyes on the ball. When the terrain changes from turf to dirt/gravel, that is a sign for the outfielder that they are about to hit the wall or fence behind them. Do outfielders always pay attention to the change in terrain or the feeling? No. We all have our own warning track that resembles our stress levels. It is essential for athletes to understand what their personal warning track looks like and feels like. It may include changes in sleep or appetite, irritability, social withdrawal, or a lack of motivation. As a coach, ask your athletes what their warning track looks like. Then, ask them what they need in those moments, so you know how to better support them when needed.
Our research has shown that athletes who exemplify the areas above are those with lower levels of psychological distress and burnout. On the other hand, athletes who neglect the areas above are likely to experience more burnout and distress. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the five areas above also influence one another. Looking for a place to start? Out of 113 items, the one with the highest rating for mental health and performance was “believe in yourself.” Many of the items in the growth mindset category also rose to the top, suggesting a good starting place includes helping athletes let go of mistakes and reminding them not to be so hard on themselves when they fall short of expectations.
Though we know the five areas above are crucial to wellness and performance for athletes, we also recognize there are no guarantees. Sport is inherently unpredictable due to changing circumstances at all levels. By emphasizing the areas above, coaches can create a strong foundation for athlete success now and in years to come.