Elite athletes like Aaron Lennon deserve career-long help from sport psychologists

Lennon in action. EPA/PETER POWELL

Being an elite athlete would seem like the perfect life. Many have access to high-quality training facilities, receive expert coaching, and are awarded excellent salaries. But examples of athletes experiencing poor psychological health continue to emerge. Footballer Aaron Lennon is only the most recent case to gain attention after the Everton winger was detained under the Mental Health Act over concerns for his welfare.

The UK Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) has since revealed that more than 150 players and former players contacted it about their mental health last year. One study from 2015 estimated that just under half of elite athletes were experiencing symptoms of at least one mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. High profile competitors like cricketer Marcus Trescothick, or boxer Frank Bruno help bring the problem to our attention.

There are a number of specialist psychologists who aim to help athletes to navigate the pressures and difficulties associated with elite sport, and which can add to the challenges we all face in our daily lives. But what do these sports psychology consultants do? And what can we learn from the work they have done?

Marcus Trescothick attempts a sweep during a 2004 Test in South Africa. EPA/JON HRUSA

Mental toughness

For a start, we’re not talking about the conventional image of a “shrink” with a clipboard and a white coat taking notes while an athlete unburdens themselves while lying on a couch. These are the kinds of misconceptions that can lead people to negatively stereotype athletes who seek support.

In case you doubt the effect of these stereotypes, one study from 2008 offers a useful illustration. It explored the effects of a hypnosis intervention on the self-belief of a footballer competing in a League Two football club in England. During initial meetings, the player explained that the team’s management had an extremely negative perception of sport psychology. The coach then explained that any athlete found to be working with a sports psychologist would be dropped from the team and transfer listed. The coach went on to explain that such athletes would be considered “soft” and “lacking the needed mental toughness”.

But sport psychology is not all about rectifying psychological deficiencies. The discipline can also focus on maximising positive attributes for peak performance by developing appropriate skills.

Just as a strength and conditioning coach would work on physical aspects through training programmes, a sports psychologist would work on psychological aspects through relevant skills training, such as developing motivation through goal-setting. Usain Bolt has achieved a hatful of Olympic golds and world records by training his physical attributes and maintaining these physical standards throughout his career. So why shouldn’t the same be the case for psychological factors?

Usain Bolt celebrates at the Rio Olympics in 2016. EPA/ANTONIO LACERDA

Olympic tasks

Ultimately, the role of a sports psychologist is more varied then simply focusing on psychological issues. In one study from 2012, which looked at the provision of sport psychology consultancy at three Olympic Games, the researchers found that consultants worked with athletes, coaches, and medical staff – psychological services weren’t just for the star performers. They also found a wide range of methods in use: one-to-one sessions; group sessions; interventions; and competition observations.

And equally clear was the finding that those sports psychologists working at Olympic games covered a diverse range of issues. There was work on general performance and mental preparation, tailored help with the particular pressures and experiences of an Olympics, coping strategies for non-sport factors such as media demands, and assistance with personal factors. The whole gamut of life as an elite athlete was covered.

Perhaps most importantly, sports psychology consultants do not waltz in when trouble starts and wave a magic wand that heals troubled athletes. Developing psychological attributes requires time, practice, and can only really be built from a consistent, strong working alliance between practitioner and athletes.

The trouble is, research from 2010 revealed that athletes tend to rely on reactive coping rather than future-oriented coping. In other words, athletes typically deal with a stressful event after it happens and don’t always deal with the pressure points in advance to reduce their potential negative impact.

Another study, from 2013, found that a sample of adolescent swimmers anticipated stress pressures less than a quarter of the time. It might be down to a lack of education in what to expect, but it highlights the importance that should be placed on strategies to help athletes cope with tough moments in the future.

The Olympic rings hang from London’s Tower Bridge in 2012. CC BY

Prepare to fail

It is a form of hopeful delusion, perhaps linked to the optimism and “positive mindsets” that are important in building sporting ability and success. But addressing this lack of foresight across sport is precisely why the integration of sports psychologists within organisations could be so important.

We cannot know if more help would have protected Lennon from the troubled moments he has experienced, but we can accept that career-long engagement with specialist consultants can help elite athletes to cope with events in life and sport that may trigger mental health problems – from the intensity of early failures and success, to the shock of retirement.

Not all athletes can self-regulate. A coach telling someone to “just relax” is only useful if someone has the ability to relax themselves. The role of a sports psychologist should not therefore be to fix mental health problems that explode dramatically into an athletes life, but to provide over the long-term the education and support which enables athletes to become self-sufficient and minimise the likelihood of the fuse ever being lit.