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It’s OK Not to be OK.. But Then What?

The recent emphasis on and increased awareness of mental health in sport and in society is welcome. However, there is confusion around what constitutes ‘mental health’, and about the definition of ‘mental illness’.

Where does well-being come from? How can we find it again when it has apparently been lost?

This confusion is absolutely not the fault of anyone who is suffering with their thoughts, feelings and emotions. The authorities we look to for guidance – academia, public health and sports organisations – appear to be in a similar state of conflict.

There are varying definitions, categorisations and approaches to dealing with what is undoubtedly a serious and growing problem. This article is an attempt to help coaches and players to understand the conversation around mental health in sport.

Where should we start if and when the people around us are struggling?

The ‘Medicalisation’ of Mental Health

Increasingly in discussions about well-being, the words ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ have become synonymous. The terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ imply a pathological aspect to our thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

Psychiatry, behaviourist psychology and psychotherapy have at their roots the assumption that thoughts and feelings, and therefore any maladies associated with them, originate in the brain.

Theories being advanced by neuroscience link brain activity to subjective experience. These concepts are tempting for coaches or sports psychologists when faced with an athlete or a team who is struggling.

They perpetuate the belief that low moods, lack of motivation or confidence are physical or biological issues.

It’s undeniable that a small number of human beings have brains which are malfunctioning in some way, either due to genetics, physical injury such as concussion, or through substance misuse; drugs, alcohol etc. In these cases, a medical intervention may well be the most appropriate course of action.

However, the vast majority of people who are suffering with their thoughts, feelings and emotions are otherwise perfectly healthy.

Physiological, or Philosophical?

Not enjoying your sport as much as you used to? Feeling anxious about the outcome of a game? Suffering from a lack of confidence? Worrying about your relationships with team-mates or coaching staff?

These aren’t physical, medical or biological problems. They are philosophical, psychological or spiritual.

They stem from a misunderstanding of human nature. Of the way the world really is. Confusion about who you are and about the meaning of life and sport. Unfortunately, the common response from the mental health professions to these misunderstandings is a prescription.

The assumption that ‘mind,’ (our thoughts, feelings and perceptions) is an emergent property of the brain – something that exists separately and is within the control of an individual – is what leads to the labelling of millions of intelligent, creative, energetic, curious children as having a medical ‘disorder’ (ADHD).

They are routinely given drugs to alter their brain chemistry and to numb or suppress their natural exuberance. A good thing for the pharmaceutical industry.

Not so good for children and their parents.

What About Sports Psychology?

In between medicine and philosophy sits psychology. Psychology is often described as a process of analysing, categorising and processing emotions and behaviours.

Exploring what might have happened in your past to make you feel the way you feel might be helpful in the short term. But the problems in your life are still going to be there. You can’t change the past. And delving into previous events doesn’t necessarily help with the present or the future.

Understanding yourself is not about memorising the ‘Encyclopaedia of You’.

Will investigating, analysing and categorising every detail of your past and present add to the baggage you are carrying around with you? Or will it lighten the load?

It’s normal to have problems, feelings and emotions.

Distress is not a disease.

Similar Questions, Different Answers

Philosophers and psychologists are asking many of the same questions. The difference comes in the methodology of study and the interpretation of the answers.

Psychology usually tries to solve emotional or behavioural problems using the methodology of science. Experiments are carried out, data is compiled. Evidence is assembled and conclusions are drawn.

Reliable statistics can be useful when we are looking at large groups of people. But they tell you very little about an individual. Studies suggest that achieving a goal you have worked your whole life towards should make you feel happy, fulfilled and at peace.

But this isn’t much comfort when the day after winning a major tournament or match, you feel empty and life seems to have lost some of its meaning.

Philosophy addresses the same questions as psychology, but through dialogue, logic, reason and insight. In an ideal world the two approaches would work hand in hand. A combination of both should lead to the most satisfactory outcomes.

Observation, perception, experimentation and analysis of experience are more commonly associated with psychology.

But when it comes to the subjective matters of thoughts and feelings, the evidence can only be interpreted from a philosophical and spiritual standpoint.

Keep It Simple

So, where should we start in attempting to build on the increased awareness of mental health in sport? To assist athletes and coaches who are feeling low or under pressure and are wondering where to turn.

Occam’s Razor is a philosophical principle which states that if there are several possible answers, the simplest explanation for an unexplained phenomenon is the most likely.

If you are walking in the English countryside and you hear hoof-beats, think horses, not zebras.

Research and experience tell us that the likelihood of a previously healthy, relatively happy person suddenly developing a physical issue with their brain causing them to feel depressed, is very low. So, logic would suggest that something else is responsible for the change in your mood.

For example, if you believe your innate well-being and value as a person can be impacted by how your team is playing or whether your contract is going to be renewed, you may well feel anxious or insecure.

If you believe that you need to feel a certain way or have a certain state of mind in order to perform or enjoy your sport, you might experience frustration or powerlessness when that feeling or mindset proves elusive.

The question is this: Are your emotions more likely due to a malfunction in your understanding about who you are and how life works? Or to a malfunction in your brain chemistry?

Could a misunderstanding about yourself, your worldview or a misplaced belief about your life or sport have obscured your natural, innate well-being? Could this be causing you to feel anxious insecure, frustrated or de-motivated?

If you suspect that might be the case, seeking a medical or pharmaceutical intervention would seem to be inappropriate?

It’s Good to Talk 

Most people can assess and define a ‘problem’ in the material world that seems to have precipitated their feelings. If you feel that you have got to this point, the next step is almost always to talk to someone about it.

Simple dialogue with another caring individual is at the heart of all therapeutic relationships. There is considerable debate as to whether any healing that does take place is a result of the connection between the two people, or something that was said or any technique that may have been employed.

Just getting your worries off your chest can often be enough to get some space between you and the issue. Often insights will appear in that space and move you forwards. Sometimes the counsellor or mentor can offer a different perspective on things. Again this might allow an insight to arise.

The question of who to turn to is what prevents many athletes and coaches from seeking support. This can become another worry in itself.

Opening up to someone else within your sporting organisation can be an uncomfortable proposition. Concerns about appearing mentally weak to peers or people above you in the hierarchy can make this a big step to take.

Family or close friends can be an option. But the same worries may arise, along with the feeling that they might not really understand the situation or be able to offer practical advice.

Many athletes and coaches pride themselves on their self-sufficiency. They don’t want to burden those closest to them with their problems and issues.

Approaching a mental health professional is an option, but many are reluctant to do so due to the ‘medicalisation’ problem outlined above.

Finding a neutral third party who you can trust, someone who you feel will listen carefully, can understand your situation and who isn’t going to jump to a conclusion, to judge you or try to fix you, can often be a game changer for an athlete who is struggling.

A Philosophy for Mental Health in Sport and Life

Not feeling good about your sport or your life is much more likely to be a disorder in your concepts about how the world works, than a disorder in the way your brain is functioning.

Someone who can help you investigate those concepts and help you make sense of them is likely to be more helpful than a prescription. Or delving into memories of your childhood or past sporting experiences.

Everyone suffers from low moods and ill feelings from time to time.

Understanding yourself, your values and your beliefs and integrating them into a coherent, functional and enjoyable approach to sport and life is the best way we have found to ride them out and learn from the experience.

Doing so can often lead to a resurgence in motivation and confidence and the recollection of why you fell in love with your sport in the first place.

If you would like to learn more about our approach to mental health in sport, or to explore this idea further, please follow this link to arrange a free, no obligation and confidential conversation.

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