Wellness For Elite & Everyday Athletes
“Wellness” is a popular term. A modern buzzword, but one which verges on being too ambiguous, broad, and soft sounding to be practical when talking about performance. More likely to be used by spas, than sportsmen and women.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “The state of being healthy, especially when it is something that you actively try to achieve”..That sounds more like something we can relate to. Especially when the examples it cites are: “Employers who emphasize worker wellness get a healthy return on their investment” and “Yoga is said to promote the wellness of the mind and body.”
This is the key point, whether we talk about wellness or mental health, it’s simply to raise the reasons why athletes have to look after their minds as much as their bodies (and sometimes more), and how it can be done. Because usually you have to feel well, in order to do well. And if you invest time and thought into it, there is a significant return on investment.
Professionals face pressure
Elite athletes face immense pressure. It can come from themselves and their desire to win, and it can come from coaches, teammates, family, friends, fans, media, and so on, and all of the above. This pressure (and perceived pressure) may not exist at the start of a career when an athlete is in their ascendancy and improving everyday. Instead it comes when things change, results drop, and the magic disappears. This is when the mind matters.
Another instance is when athletes or players are severely injured, and forced out of the limelight and into a long recovery, or an early and untimely retirement. When public adulation and interest is replaced by private adversity and a sense of isolation. This is when the mind really matters, and needs to be cared for.
Among professional athletes, data from American studies show that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis at some point, which may manifest as stress, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, or burnout.
Athletes are now supported
Top level sport is an emotional rollercoaster, but now the mental challenges that athletes face are being supported. Through sports psychologists and clinical psychologists, coaches and therapists, and regimes and practices that bolster and boost mental health, to meet the demands of an elite role, and the pitfalls that can come with it. The solutions are most commonly meditation and mindfulness, taking time off to see family and friends, and talking about troubles and issues in an open and constructive way. Simple steps, but as important as stretching, weights or cardio, in order to stay balanced and strong.
Professional sports teams now frequently have mindfulness coaches, and employ an ethos to take mental health as important as mental health. This ethos is then carried through to the individual athletes, who are tasked with creating their own mindsets and mantras, personal philosophies, and ways of finding constructive perspective and a certain level of peace and equanimity with whatever comes. A number of professional footballers hire and use their own personal therapists in order to process their thoughts, while others are given advice on how to deal with pressure or negative thinking.
As Jos Buttler said in our recent Instagram takeover, his strategy to cope with stressful moments when playing professional cricket is to take a few seconds to breathe, and to then “think as objectively as you can, take youʼre time and handle the situation, and look at your short-term goals”. His advice reflects that of academic experts and spiritual gurus alike; to breathe deep, be conscious of the breathing, and focus only on what’s at hand, and let all extraneous thoughts slip away. This process can be seen by elite athletes in almost every sport, from taking a penalty kick, to serving a tennis ball, to taking a shot. The mind has to be clear.
Ways to wellness
Mindfulness. A term that’s used frequently, but which could seem vague to some. The singular aim is to stop dwelling on the past, or imagining the future, and instead to bring our attention to the present moment, with what is physically happening, rather than what is mentally happening. As such, it’s less mind“full”ness, and more ‘mind emptying’, but the word is used as such for us to be mindful, or simply pay attention, to the present moment. This can be done in any way, from focusing on the breath and paying no attention to thoughts that pop up, to doing a craft or hobby or pursuit that takes your mind away from thinking, which could be art, cooking, computer games, or indeed sports.
Meditation. Almost synonymous with mindfulness, meditation is simply the practice of focusing on the breath, letting thoughts pass, and keeping singular focus on the breath in order to find space from the usual cycle of thoughts. It can be accompanied by guided meditations, using apps such as Headspace or Calm etc., or be practiced with a matra (a word without meaning, repeated internally to facilitate focus) as a more formal meditation technique, such as TM, which is scientifically proven to decrease anxiety.
Yoga, pilates, tai chi, or stretching. Any of these practices involve us slowing our bodies down, and thus slowing our minds down, and slowly and thoughtfully concentrating on taking one action at a time. Gently stretching the body to be more supple, while in the process calming the mind to be more balanced and at ease.
Talking. The oldest form of therapy. Talk to friends and family, join groups, or go to see a counsellor or therapist. Data clearly and unequivocally shows that those who share their thoughts and feelings and problems, improve their wellbeing, while those who don’t are more at risk of developing anxiety and depression, and being mentally and physically impacted by their thoughts. This is especially true for men, who are typically less likely to communicate about issues, and who can suffer as a result. If you have any issues that are bothering you, there is a friend or someone who will listen, and it’s simply by verbally sharing that individuals can get frustrations off their chest, and put them in perspective. A solution to the issues often isn’t needed, just the opportunity to speak and share and be heard.
Journaling. A simple and personal way to articulate thoughts and feelings, and gain perspective. Journaling about issues, or negative thoughts, or frustrations, can help to air them. To transfer them from mind to paper, and gain some objectivity or perspective about them, to then move on to more positive and productive thoughts and outlooks. Favoured by greats such as Marcus Auerlieus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill. For those that think a lot, writing it down most definitely helps.
Walking. Another form of wellness favoured by the greats, such as Winston Churchill and Charles Dickens, to current Premier League football managers, who use it as time to process thoughts, with the physical motion therin facilitating personal progress. Academic data shows that walking improves wellbeing, as does being in nature (studies found that simply the presence of trees in a local area can help to boost mental health and performance, and also reduce crime and many other issues). Another study found that walking or cycling to work is better for wellbeing than driving. It may be an extremely simple technique, but there’s a lot to be said for a good walk. While spending time in daylight on a daily basis is also scientifically shown to boost wellbeing.
Healthy diet. The academic research is infinite - if we eat a healthy balanced diet, avoid alcohol, and sleep around eight hours a night, our body will function optimally, and our wellbeing will be optimal too. Healthy foods such as eggs, cheese, tofu, turkey, salmon, nuts, seeds, pineapple, and even cheese, are all found to boost serotonin.
Gratitude. Finally, studies have also shown that if people think about what they are grateful for, on a daily basis, and spend a moment with that gratitude, or write it down, they are much more likely to report higher levels of wellbeing and lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Simply putting our minds to what we have to be thankful for, and positive about, helps to counteract negative thinking habits, and increases positive feelings of wellness.
The benefits of mindfulness Mindfulness and meditation reduces negative thoughts and emotions, and as a practice it reduces stress and chronic pain, improves sleep, and boosts the immune system. It can be used to treat OCD, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other mental and physical ailments. It also improves focus and concentration, in athletic and mental performance, and it encourages healthy habits, compassion and altruism.
Mindfulness helps us to be more objective and process-oriented, to breathe and take one step at a time, and be less derailed by quick emotional responses, or negative and frustrated thoughts. This therefore allows us to be less anxious, angry, or absent on an everyday basis.
Now is the time Mental health has become more prevalent across society in recent years, and especially during the pandemic, and people now talk about it, and work on it, as part of their wellbeing efforts.
It’s important for us to remember that elite athletes may seem superhuman in their sport, but they are very much human like the rest of us, when it comes to the need for wellbeing. And while we all want to perform to our best, and get better every single day, this can only be achieved and maintained by a balanced routine that looks after our mental wellness.
The steps are simple, but if we look after our minds as well as our bodies, then they will look after us.