The ball cracks off the bat, flying deep into the night sky.  As the outfielder tracks towards the center field wall, they notice a change; the lush green grass fades into coarse red dirt. 

The warning track; a shift in terrain to warn the outfielder that they’re close to hitting the wall and that they need to slow down. 

If the outfielder pays attention to the warning track, they’ll slow down and adjust accordingly. If they ignore it, they risk an unpleasant surprise. 

Warning tracks don’t just exist on the diamond; they’re a part of every athlete’s mental experience, and having the awareness to know when you’ve hit the warning track and how to respond is key to strong mental wellness. 

Mental Wellness and Self Awareness 

Self-awareness is knowing when you’re approaching the warning track.

“One thing we assist with all our athletes is to pay attention to their body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and even behaviors.  The best of the best know when they are getting close to hitting the wall, and begin to change things to keep themselves thriving” Sport Psychologist Dr. Justin Anderson says.  “Highly self aware athletes are less likely to get injured, tend to be able to keep their motivation and energy levels higher when they need it.  This of course also requires them to know when to take the foot off the accelerator”.

All athletes that want to be great want to get to the finish line the first/fastest.  But let’s take a page out of auto racing… as those cars go around the track, the drivers need to take the foot off the gas in the corners to go faster and stay off the wall.  It’s seems anti-intuitive for athletes, but those that can master this skill of knowing when to press and then how and when to relax often are the most resilient.

Hitting the warning tracks looks different for everyone but there are some common signs that athletes and coaches can look for…both in themselves and in others.   

“It could look like a change in sleep patterns, irritability in their mood, significant fatigue or lack of motivation, or a change in appetite.” Anderson says.   “Oftentimes our behaviors are the easiest thing to spot, and a common one is pulling back socially. A lot of athletes are younger and tend to be in a more social time of their lives developmentally, so when they don’t have the energy to go out or hang with their friends, it can be a sign that they are depleted physically or mentally, which can spiral into more significant mental health issues.”

This just leads to increased stress and prohibits the athlete from reaching peak mental wellness and performance. 

On the flipside, athletes with strong self awareness recognize when their needs are not being met and take active steps to replenish themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally.   


What to Do When You’ve Hit the Warning Track

The downs that an athlete will experience can come from a variety of sources, including poor performances, frustration with those in their environment, and mental or physical burnout.  Whatever the cause, there’s no avoiding them, nor can we avoid the negative thoughts or emotions we experience when we’re approaching the wall. 

The good news?  We can turn our awareness into a call to action, and focus on recovery strategies that are within our control.

One of the best things to do when struggling with mental wellness is simply talking to someone about your struggles. That could be a teammate or coach, but also family, friends or anyone else who is a trusted member of your circle. 

“Talking about it can be an important strategy to continue to maintain a resilient and mentally healthy mind, because naming our emotions, thoughts and behaviors can give ourselves a different perspective than when we see it just rattling around in our thoughts”.  Anderson says.  “And if we share it with someone who genuinely cares about us, oftentimes we get their perspectives as well, which can be huge to help athletes manage all the stressors that they face daily.”

Talking about those stressors and struggles is important because it sets a precedent for the person on the receiving end that they can speak up when they’re going through their own issues. 

“The more we talk about it, the more we all know that it is a thing,” Anderson says. “For mental wellness and mental health, there are ups and downs for everyone.” 

Anderson also recommends finding professional support or counseling such as sport psychology when faced with mental struggles in sport…and even before struggles arise. 

“You don’t need to have a mental health disorder or diagnosis to work with a sport psychologist,” Anderson says. “In fact some of the NFL’s best football players meet with me weekly to ‘maintain’ their mental wellness, keep their focus sharp, and keep their confidence optimal”.   All athletes can benefit from sport psychology.  That’s a great reason to go to one.  Being willing to make that phone call can be a game changer for athletes because they then have a dedicated hour to reflect on themselves, develop more self-awareness and keep their minds where they want them to be healthier and perform at their best.”

In addition to knowing when to reach out for help, strong mental awareness allows athletes to better understand how they react to adversity, and how to respond to it thoughtfully and controllably.  

“We can’t control external situations, and what many don’t know is that we can’t truly control our thoughts or feelings either, but we can control how we react to them and that can make all the difference” says Anderson.

This article is part five of a five-part series from Premier’s Research and Analytics division on unlocking personal performance potential.  Read part 1 here.  Read part 2 here.  Read part 3 here.  Read part 4 here.