Beliefs and Wellbeing: Do the Way that Athletes Think Influence Their Mental Health? by Paul Mansell
Stressors can often feel overwhelming for athletes. Constant judgement from being in a results-driven environment, concerns about contracts not being renewed, receiving criticism from significant others, demanding schedules, and the inevitable injuries are all stressors that athletes must frequently navigate. Stressors such as these have the potential to undermine their mental health, with studies indicating that athletes are prone to experiencing clinical anxiety and depression. Accordingly, it is important to understand the factors that may underpin their mental health and consider solutions for how they can continue to thrive in their careers.
Particularly over the last ten years, research investigating the belief systems and mental health of athletes has gathered momentum. Using a Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) lens to explain how such beliefs has proved to be a fruitful approach in explaining how athletes’ beliefs may influence their mental health. A core component of REBT are irrational beliefs, and these cognitions are rigid, illogical, and extreme in nature. Irrational beliefs are split into four categories and include demandingness (e.g., “I want, therefore I must…”), awfulizing (e.g., “it is awful”), frustration intolerance (e.g., “I can’t stand it”), and depreciation (e.g., “I am a complete failure"). Demandingness is said to combine with the other three irrational beliefs and this can lead to poor mental health. To illustrate, prior to an important competition, an athlete may have thought that they absolutely must win (demandingness) and if they didn’t win, they would be a complete failure (depreciation).
Athletes can face a large number of stressors… (Image by Jodi Hanagan)
Our own recent research supports the findings of previous studies in that irrational beliefs are associated with poor mental health in athletes. It also extends prior research by demonstrating that self-confidence may also feature in these relationships. Self-confidence, or our ability to believe that we can achieve intended outcomes, has been found time and again to be an important factor in determining athletic success. Athletes may possess high levels of self-confidence if they have a track record of success, but our research demonstrates this may be under threat if they possess irrational beliefs. To explain, when an athlete possesses depreciation beliefs (for example, negative evaluations of oneself), it seems logical that the self-doubt these evaluations create will lead to lower self-confidence – “If I am a failure, then surely, I am likely to fail”. A further example of how athletes’ irrational beliefs may diminish self-confidence is by interpreting previous failures negatively, such as considering them as worse than bad (awfulizing). Again, adopting such beliefs is not likely to facilitate predictions of success.
Before a competition, how would you describe your self-confidence? (Image by Jodi Hanagan)
Given the importance of self-confidence in performing well, it is logical to suggest that if irrational beliefs lead to reductions in self-confidence, performance levels may deteriorate. However, more importantly, our research demonstrates that it is the mental health of athletes that may be at risk due to the combination of high irrational beliefs and low self-confidence. Consequently, highlighting these relationships in our study provides an important explanation for how athlete mental health may be eroded. What this means for athletes and practitioners is that it is important to detect irrational beliefs and to intervene when they are apparent. The good news is that it is possible to reduce irrational beliefs in athletes and replace them with their more adaptive alternative – rational beliefs. Contrastingly, rational beliefs are flexible, logical, and non-extreme. For example, promoting rational beliefs such as “I want to…” rather than “I must…” and “If I lost it does not make me a complete failure, only that I have failed this time” are said to be more likely to support the growth of self-confidence and positive mental health in athletes. Using REBT-informed interventions, unconditional self-acceptance techniques, and positive self-talk strategies may all be useful approaches in promoting rational beliefs in athletes.
Returning to the original question of “do the way that athletes think influence their mental health?” – our research supports the growing evidence in this area, and we would answer in the affirmative. What we can now also add to this is that athletes’ beliefs, specifically irrational beliefs, are likely to undermine their self-confidence, and that the combination of irrational beliefs and low self-confidence is likely to be detrimental to their mental health.
Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology,
Research conducted with my co-author Dr Martin Turner, Manchester Metropolitan University
Open-access link to original article: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2022.102284
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