Research has shown the importance of mental health on how an individual performs in all areas of their life, including athletic performance. Understanding the relationship between how the brain and body relate to each other is key to building resilience and confidence and achieving peak athletic performance.
The Mind-Body Connection
The mind-body connection, or how the brain and body relate to each other, is a mystery that scientists are still exploring. It’s easy to observe how physical factors and experiences affect the way a person thinks. However, the extent of the influence the mind has over the body may be less obvious.
Traditionally, there’s been the idea that the mind is in charge of the body; it tells the body what to do, and the body obeys. However, emerging research indicates a much more complex connection. For example, someone may act on a subconscious urge, such as instinctively reaching out to break the fall of an unsteady child, before the brain recognizes the need to take action.
Research has also shown the effects that certain physical activities have on seemingly unrelated processes in the brain. One study indicated that climbing a tree was an effective way for someone to improve their brain’s ability to store memories. Another study linked walking with improved creativity.
To an outsider, sports and athletic abilities may seem to be purely physical. Some of the most successful performers are in peak physical condition and display exceptional strength and endurance. However, success in sports goes beyond conditioning. While the psychological side of sports may not be as evident as the physical side, it may be even more consequential to an athlete’s success.
A holistic approach to athletic performance can provide insight into why some athletes perform more effectively than others, or why some improve with time while others see their performance decrease. Reaching peak performance requires more than focusing purely on physical conditioning; it requires the athlete to cultivate a strong and healthy mind.
Looking Beyond Physical Conditioning
Based on this research, many athletes are looking for ways to respect and maximize the mind-body connection to improve their performance. The link between exercise and mental health is something widely observed; some studies have even suggested that for some people, regular exercise is more effective in treating depression than medication. When looking for ways to improve athletic performance, athletes can take the inverse approach by looking at the psychological as a way to improve the physical.
To be clear, there’s no shortcut to success. Staying consistent with training, managing dietary needs, and planning rest days are all critical for an athlete’s performance. However, neglecting to cultivate mental strength can limit the success someone can achieve, regardless of their physical conditioning.
Coping With Pressure and Stress
Being a professional athlete isn’t easy. Not only do athletes have to deal with the physical demands of their job, but they also face a tremendous amount of pressure and stress when they’re competing. Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the world, garnered a lot of media attention during the Tokyo Olympic Games when she withdrew from the team final competition. According to Biles, she experienced the “twisties,” or a mental block that affected her ability to track her position in the air and land safely. In an interview, she noted the extreme stress she was under as a result of the high expectations placed on her and described how that impacted her ability to perform. Despite her physical condition and countless hours of practice, Biles withdrew to protect herself from injury.
Biles is far from being the first athlete to experience physical effects of stress. English footballer Marcus Rashford, English tennis player Emma Raducanu, and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, among countless other athletes, have been in similar situations.
An athlete can train tirelessly and reach a point where they can consistently perform perfectly during practice. However, during competition, stress may cause them to become tense and rigid, preventing them from performing optimally.
Strategies for Managing Stress
Find Social Support
Social support is critical when it comes to managing sports depression and stress. For many, family members and friends who attend competitions provide support. Others find emotional support by building camaraderie with teammates and other competitors.
Reinterpret Stress and Anxiety
Physiologically, anxiety and excitement share a lot of the same characteristics and are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The difference is in how the individual perceives what they’re feeling. Those who see the feelings and signals from their body in a negative light feel anxious, while those who see them positively feel excited. Training the brain to recognize excitement instead of anxiety can improve the individual’s performance.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts can worsen performance anxiety, but the individual can combat this by reframing how they see certain situations. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by a challenge, for example, the individual can choose to see the fact that they’re facing the challenge as confirmation of how far they’ve come as an athlete.
Use Positive Self-Talk
How the athlete talks to themselves can influence the level of anxiety they feel when competing. Positive self-talk can help the individual feel more confident and perform better.
Building Confidence and Resilience
Confidence and resilience are key factors when it comes to achieving athletic success. Confident athletes tend to dream bigger, work harder and cope with stress from competitions more effectively.
How to Build Confidence as an Athlete
Let Go of Fear
While physical dangers are present in most sports, these aren’t what athletes are typically afraid of. Instead, they may worry that their performance won’t be enough for a positive outcome, whether that’s making a team, winning a game, or living up to others’ expectations. This can cause some to be overly cautious in the way they perform. Letting go of these fears is the first step to building confidence as an athlete.
Once the athlete has obtained optimal physical conditioning and has developed the strong work ethic they need to master their skills, they need to trust their abilities. Relying on practice and learning to perform freely can help them allow their skills to flow without too much thought.
Focus on Personal Growth
As an athlete, it’s important to resist the urge to compare yourself to others or become intimidated by competitors or teammates. Being intimidated by others can erode confidence, but athletes can overcome that by focusing on their own progress rather than becoming distracted by others.
Don’t Rely on Social Approval
Many athletes rely on the opinions of others to shape how they see themselves. While it makes sense to feel validated when people are paying attention to how effectively you’ve performed, worrying about how an off day can affect social approval can be crippling. Instead, athletes can build resilience by basing their confidence on their drive and dedication rather than how others see them.
While cultivating resilience and confidence as an athlete feels like an internal process, that doesn’t mean external support isn’t helpful and even necessary. The effects of sports on mental health can be positive for some, but many high-profile athletes report living with mental health issues. The looming fear of career-ending injuries, retirement, and performance expectations are all factors that researchers have linked to depression. Not only can this impact an athlete’s performance, but it can have a negative effect on other areas of their lives, such as academics and relationships with partners and children.
Coaches, fellow athletes and national resources such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness can all help athletes connect with mental health services. Some sports organizations, such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, also have helpful mental health resources for athletes. Individuals can also find mental health care professionals who specialize in mental game coaching for a tailored approach to care.
Research has revealed how important the mind-body connection is in athletic performance. For many athletes, focusing on mental health alongside physical conditioning helps to build confidence and improve performance. Reframing feelings of anxiety, changing your internal dialogue, and finding support and mental health resources can help you avoid burnout and achieve peak athletic success.