This Beagle Bites covers pre-competition nerves and anxiety… a real challenge for many athletes young and old.

You’ll probably already know that mental health has been a long-neglected aspect of athletic performance. However, its 2023 and the importance of athlete mental health has gained significant focus from athletes themselves, their coaches, their sports therapists and the wider public. This change in focus can be attributed to an enhanced and now evidenced understanding of the unique risk factors and challenges that athletes face in relation to their mental health.

Track and field athletes are subject to huge physical and mental demands in their sport, including rigorous and intense training schedules, high-pressure competitions and the constant expectation to perform at a high level. This combination of factors may lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, all of which ultimately have a detrimental effect on an athlete’s performance and well-being.

Sometimes, there is a fine line between nerves and anxiety but the two are very different.  One of the main reasons athletes become nervous before a big competition is the importance of the outcome. The more significant the event, the greater the mental pressure, and the more uncertain the athlete is about the outcome, the greater the feelings of tension, anxiety, and nervousness.

Anxiety is a little more difficult to approach with a short-term plan and this can be debilitating to the extent that athletes may be paralysed with anxious fear of the outcome to the extent that they cannot participate in the competition!  In such circumstances, we suggest working with your coach and the club’s Mental Welfare team to explore underlying challenges that can be worked on away from the pressure of competition.  Coping mechanisms and approaches can be developed to help an athlete over a sustained period of time here so planning is key!

By contrast, handling nerves can be done with techniques and approaches that can be practised.  To perform well under pressure, athletes need to practice remaining calm. Staying calm helps to regain control of the mind and body and maintain situational awareness to make good decisions. Many elite athletes have developed various techniques to help them remain calm under pressure, including visualisation exercises, positive self-talk, and deep breathing techniques.

Experts also recommend athletes practice their reaction to stress. Coaches can recreate competitive pressure by scoring athletes against their peers during training, and visualisation exercises can help athletes create a mental picture of performing well to hold onto their confidence and control leading up to an event.

In addition to these techniques, our Mental Welfare Officer can help athletes make lifestyle changes that address mental health issues through injury prevention programs. These programs utilise modern healthcare management techniques, including risk management, healthcare technology and training performance improvement to create a calming strategy for athletes.

However, while these techniques and support systems can be helpful, athletes should also be encouraged to seek professional help when they need it. There is no shame in seeking help from a therapist, counsellor, or psychologist to address mental health issues and if as signposted above, it looks more like anxiety, this may need expert help to co-develop a solution that become part of the athlete’s normal competition prep.

It is essential for athletes, their coaches and sports medicine providers to develop a full understanding of how mental health issues commonly manifest in athletes and to find ways to prevent potential issues. Prioritising athlete mental health alongside physical health can help athletes reach their full potential and enjoy long and successful careers and top levels of performance.

So, athlete mental health is a rapidly growing topic in the sports medicine community. The unique risk factors and challenges that athletes face highlight the importance of prioritising mental health alongside physical health. Athletes must learn to remain calm under pressure, practice their reaction to stress, and seek professional help when needed. With the proper support systems in place, athletes can reach their full potential, both on and off the field.

Top areas where we can work with athletes needing assistance here include:

  • Visualisation
  • Goal Setting
  • Relaxation Techniques
  • Cognitive Restructuring
  • Develop Self-Confidence
  • Distraction Techniques
  • Focusing on What the athlete themselves can control

These are discussed in the attached video.  If you want to know more here or work on some of these techniques, please raise this with your coach after training or book an online session with your coach.