Tag: Mental Health

It takes many qualities to be an Olympian; passion, determination, motivation, commitment, discipline and consistency to name a few. One important mental skill that can often be overlooked in Olympic athletes’ is mental toughness.

Mental toughness is described as the ability to cope with pressure, adversity and stress (Bull, 1996). After spending a lifetime of training and perfecting form for a single opportunity to compete in an Olympic games, Olympians can understandably feel an intense amount of pressure and stress when it comes time for their final performance. Research shows that athletes achieve the best performance results when they have more mental toughness, as measured by commonly associated attributes (Bull, 1996).

Mental strength and awareness influences many underlying mechanisms that operate in a combination to achieve a successful mindset and performance outcome. Every practice and competition begins with the way an athlete thinks and what their mindset is focused on. The quality of our thoughts is critical and can often attribute to our success or our shortcomings.

Being able to perform under pressure, such as competing at the 2018 Olympics, involves years of concentration, determination, and stability of a positive attitude to obtain mental strength. Just like practicing physical skills, practicing mental skills such as dealing with stress, performance setbacks, bad weather conditions or fatigue can impact performance. The quality of an Olympian that makes them so successful is that regardless of any implications standing in their way, they stand in the face of adversity and remain confident in their skills.  

Mental toughness is a skill any athlete can acquire that can help to positively influence performance. Studies conducted at Staffordshire University showed that athletes with high levels of confidence and control reported feeling less physical discomfort during competition and higher levels of concentration than those who had less confidence (Hamilton, 2015). This evidence supports the importance of mental toughness for performance and how significant it is to believe in yourself and your abilities.



Bull, S. J., Albinson, J. G., & Shambrook, C. J. (1996). The mental game plan: Getting psyched for sport. Eastbourne, UK: Sports Dynamics.

Hamilton, M. (2015) “How Much Does Mental Toughness Affect Race Times?” Runner’s World, 26 May 2015, www.runnersworld.com/newswire/how-much-does-mental-





In the 1996 Olympics gymnast Kerri Strug sprained her ankle on her first vault landing. All she needed to earn a gold medal was a clean vault, which was exactly what she did after spraining her ankle: Strug performed a vault with an injury, landing on one foot. Competing or performing with an injury is common in world of athletics at any level. Strug’s story, as well as many other athletes who have overcome adversity, hold not only a special place in history but also in the eyes of society. The athletes are looked up to as heroes for sacrificing their bodies for the glory of a win. This mentality contributes to the pressure many athletes face to play through an injury at all costs, and negatively contributes to their bodies and mental health. Hiding injuries and/or playing through the pain is not only hurting the injury and prolonging it, but could also lead to more serious problems later on.

From athletes’ perspectives, they are training to control and master their bodies. When injuries occur they may view it as just another part of the body that needs to perform a certain way. An injury may also cause them to view their body as something to fight against. The injury may seem like a form of betrayal because their body is not cooperating with the demands, but in reality the body is telling the host that it needs a break.

Athletes tend to avoid their injuries because they do not want to take time off. For professional athletes, playing through injuries is the norm—their sport is their job, and if they have to take time off, many feel as though they aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities. This, as well as the threat of being replaced, factors in to playing while they are injured. It’s reasonable that they play through injuries; they have everything riding on their athletic abilities. As a result, if the injury is something that won’t end their career, they will risk their health for the reward. However, even though athletes play through the pain very often at this level, they are aware of potential risks. Athletes view those who can accept that they are injured as brave. Former NBA player Alvin Williams stated, “They’re the real courageous ones, because they’re the ones who are going to be able to come back. They’re setting an example that they’re more than an athlete. And, paradoxically, that’s what’s going to make the best athlete, the best organization, the best everything.” Athletes know that playing on an injury is not the best option yet this is not what they are taught or encouraged to do.

In a study of 3,000 athletes, coaches, and parents, 42% of youth athletes said that they have hidden injuries so they could play, which could lead to more serious complications as they grow up. Kate Carr, the president of Safe Kids Worldwide sums it up perfectly, “The awareness we have about injuries and the risk to our children is not matching the behavior that we’re seeing on the field.” Although winning is an important aspect of sports, it should not be something to risk children’s health for. The restriction requiring athletes to be pulled if they have a suspected concussion and the reduction of contact and checking in youth sports are both steps in the right direction for the reduction of injuries as a whole. Now the task is to create an atmosphere where it is the norm to report injuries.

In “Playing through the pain: Psychiatric risks among athletes,” Drs. Samantha O’Connell and Theo C. Manschreck look at the vulnerability in athletes regarding psychiatric health. One of the factors that drives this is how athletes express pain (which for many cases they don’t). Hiding physical injuries could be the gateway into athletes hiding other health issues as well, specifically related to mental health. Athletes may fear that seeking help will make them look weak and threaten their status as an athlete or with their team. This could lead to further problems with their mental health. O’Connell and Manschreck state that playing through pain may be influenced by pressures from coaches, scholarships or parents, but ultimately it has to do with the pressures the athletes puts on themselves to achieve.

When athletes view injury as a weakness both to their identity as an athlete and their performance, this can cause greater health issues regarding injury as well as mental health. Advise your athletes to sit it out if they are in doubt. While sitting out may not be fun for a game or two, it is better than never playing again or having it affect you or your athletes off the field. This view of injury in professional sports may not change soon, but you have the ability to change how you and/or your athletes view injury.

Ask anyone how many hours of sleep, on average, they get per night. What do they get? Somewhere between 5-7, if you’re lucky.

Then ask a doctor how many hours of sleep, on average, you should be getting per night. What’s their answer? Somewhere around 8, but with a push towards getting somewhere closer to 10.

So then ask anyone what their response to that recommendation is. What’s that going to look like? Something along the lines of “Yeah, right” but probably with some more expletives worked in. But then what if I told you that there’s some new research happening at Harvard that might end insomnia forever, and make it so everyone could get the sleep they need? Now we’re talking, right?

Sure enough, the work of Dr. Patrick Fuller is maybe getting us to exactly that point. Dr. Fuller is working on sleep medication to help ensure full, rich nights of sleep. And not the ‘full night’s sleep’ that current sleep medication provides that leaves you groggy upon waking up or is indefinite in the time you’ll be able to wake up–there is the potential for this medication to help cure insomnia outright, some researchers believe.

So naturally the question becomes: How? Fuller is using research that dates all the way back to 1950’s, changing the way that sleep medication affects the brainstem. By counteracting the brainstem’s traditional function of “wake-promoting,” Fuller and his team are helping to make sleep come more automatically, make it deeper, and most importantly make it actually restful. According to the researchers, advancements on this research could even ultimately induce sleep. Not just deep and rejuvenating sleep, but deep and rejuvenating sleep whenever you want or need it. Cheers to you, Dr. Fuller.

But so what does this mean for athletics and sport psychology? The lives of athletes are busy; when you’re not training, studying film, eating, maintaining diet and exercise logs, or completing rehabilitation and recovery exercises, chances are you’ve still got lots left to do that isn’t directly involved with being an athlete. There’s a nearly constant struggle of time-management, and for most athletes the thing is sacrificed is the same: sleep. This lack of sleep, though, is all sorts of detrimental to physical performance. To expect an athlete to be at their best, when operating on a night of no sleep is the equivalent of operating with a BAC of .10 or higher, is absurd. And while Dr. Fuller didn’t necessarily have athletes specifically in mind while he conducted his research, he’s still doing a world of good for athletes all over.

Get sleep when you can get it; ample hours of rest can be one of the most important things for healthy functioning. But in a world where it’s not always feasible to get your doctor-recommended 8 hours of sleep, Dr. Fuller might have the next best thing.

Click here to read more about Dr. Fuller’s research.