Increase Awareness

The psychological health of the high performance sport community is critical to the immediate and long term success of athletes, coaches and staff as well as our organizations (such as National and Provincial Sport Organizations, Canadian Sport Institutes and Centres, Olympic and Paralympic Committees and Own the Podium as well as professional sport organizations). It’s also critical to the reduction of any athletes’ (or coach or staff) inability to perform to their full potential due to mental health illness. As well, it reduces the risk of injuries linked to poor psychological health.

Numerous factors play a role in an individual’s psychological make-up and it’s difficult to know whether sport is the cause of a disorder or not. In sport, in particular the high performance sport, there is adversity and challenges that exist as part of the positive development of athletes so they learn to cope, train hard (effectively) and adapt under pressure. So it’s important to work with all athletes to teach skills that allow them to succeed in such an environment. Equally important is being able to identify when an athlete is not bouncing back from stressful experiences and returning to a healthy states of functioning.

It is therefore the responsibility of all those involved in high performance sport to foster a psychologically healthy culture of autonomy, competence and belongingness. In addition to creating and improving upon a safe non-judgmental environment, the power of knowledge is key to the identification and reduction and even elimination of ‘hazards’ that may pose a risk of psychological harm.

Types of Mental Health Problems

Disorder Disclaimer

The following are mental health problems (as defined by Reardon and Factor, 2010; Gardner and Moore, 2006; Mental Health Commission of Canada – Mental Health First Aid Canada, 2011).

Supporting ‘red flag’ examples are also provided to initiate the awareness and early detection of mental health problems. Please note this is not an exhaustive list, but a breakdown of some common mental health problems and the corresponding physical and psychological symptoms to look out for.

Return to Sport Plan

When acute or significant events trigger athletes into a clinical level of mental illness, there are significant barriers to an effective assessment and treatment plan. That’s partly because there are traditional approaches to the training environment that assume elite athletes have a high degree of psychological functioning.

For an athlete facing mental health issues, there are additional barriers that may impact their ability to perform, such as loss of financial support and status on the national team, both of which may be terminated if the athlete is unable to train or perform due to mental health illness. This is a hugely sensitive area in terms of preventing athletes from seeking the help they need. With that in mind, the sport system needs to recognize and accept the necessary support for mental health issues and communicate the support available to the athlete.

Appropriate assessment and documentation from medical and psychological professionals should be considered before the individual returns to regular training and competition. Gardner and Moore (2006) recommend a multi-level classification system for sport psychology to categorize and classify athletes with respect to the level of mental health that must be considered in order to really meet the individual needs of the athlete. This assessment can then be used by the team Mental Performance Consultants in much the same way “return to sport” physical plans are used for athlete safety in sports.

To avoid relapse, for instance, once the athlete or staff has returned to sport/work, there must be regular check-ups with a team doctor, family general practitioner, or mental performance consultant as well as other psychotherapist the individual may have been engaged with during their recovery – in the same way that an individual would be monitored upon their return to sport after an ACL injury.