August 2016

There is a new phrase you are likely to hear more of around sports clubs in coming years — mental health literacy.

It is the concept of increasing the ability of players, parents and coaches to recognise the signs of mental illness among people in their club, and to be able to initiate a conversation and point to resources that might help.

Mental wellness is not something that has typically been on the radar of clubs, but several high profile athletes have recently revealed their battles with mental health issues, and sports administrators are looking for ways to act, including Professional Footballers Association chief executive Adam Vivian who recently told the Huffington Post that the code is failing players in this regard.

Former world number one triathlete and performance psychologist Gaylene Clews says the use of common sports phrases such as ‘mental toughness’ needs to be re-examined.

‘Don’t put a tag like “mentally tough” on someone because they are dealing with situations, with crises, with demands, better than someone else,’ Clews says. ‘It just means that the person who is coping better has been afforded the opportunity to develop a skill set that enables them to do so.

‘You don’t label the person who is struggling as not tough enough, you work with them to develop the skill set to manage their physical and emotional resources to the best of their ability.’

Clews, who is also employed as a psychologist in the education sector, has recently published a book — Wired to play: the metacognitive athlete — in which she discusses how athletes and teams can identify mental health challenges; develop the skills to address them; and how clubs, parents, schools, coaches and others can provide support.

‘Mental toughness in my mind is actually metacognition,’ Clews says, referencing her book title. ‘Metacognitive athletes are individuals who are self-aware, who have the capacity to self-reflect, to understand how their world view has been shaped by their environment and to consider whether or not the way that they’re responding and dealing with situations is helpful or not. To not only ask the question but to implement strategies to deal with their emotional state, monitor how effective they are and, where necessary, adapt and change them.

‘Adaptability, resilience, the capacity for problem solving — these are all skill sets that can be taught.’

In her book she cites the example of individuals who may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder because of unhelpful thinking habits that trigger physical symptoms, and how coaches, teachers and parents can help those people recognise the difference between productive and unproductive worries and thoughts by encouraging metacognitive learning.

For instance, young people who are anxious about learning new skills for fear of making mistakes and being critically judged need to have constructive positive reinforcement, even if the whole movement is not correct, at least on the components that are.

Clews says metacognitive athletes learn to self-correct, so to encourage this thinking, those learning new skills should be asked to self-evaluate what part of the movement feels correct and why, and what part of the skill needs fine-tuning and how, rather than just being told what to do.
While a number of high-profile athletes have discussed their battles with depression over the years, Clews says that when sport is done well it can help to moderate mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. If, however, the demands placed on an athlete are more than their personal resources to cope, the scales can tip in a negative direction resulting in athlete burnout and/or depression.

She says metacognition can be taught to manage stress, develop life skills and build resilience. For teenagers who are going through a time of physical and emotional change, Clews suggests that it is important to help them understand that mental energy, just like physical energy, is a limited resource.

‘There are things we think, feel and do that deplete our mental energy stores and there are things we can think, feel and do that help to replenish them,’ Clews says. ‘Exercise in general is a mental energy refueler and we all need to keep on moving for good mental and physical health.’    
Conversely she adds, ‘Excessive use of technology is an energy consumer and can create a frenetic headspace. Individuals who spend more than two hours per day on recreational screen time may be at risk of interrupted sleep cycles and emotional exhaustion’.

Clews suggests athletes keep a mood diary to help them to reflect on their mood changes and the factors that contribute to those changes, so positive adjustments can be made that ultimately help athletes manage their emotional energy and mental health.

For athletes who are injured or dealing with missing out on selection, Clews recommends that they are debriefed on the need to keep exercising in some form because it regulates the body’s feel good neurochemicals and without it many may slip into feelings of anxiety and/or depression. She also suggests it is important to provide athletes with a clear direction on what to work on if they are seeking future selection so they can chart and monitor improvement.

Clews also expands on different personality traits that can place individuals at greater or lesser risk of developing depression.

‘In understanding different temperaments it is easier for the athlete and those supporting them to work with those differences to maximise the positive aspects, while minimising any potential harm from less helpful aspects,’ she said.

There are the anxious worriers, irritable personalities, self-critical personalities; those who are ‘interpersonally sensitive’, self-focused, perfectionists, socially avoidant, reserved, cooperative and effective. Clews outlines metacognitive techniques that can help each personality type minimise harm associated with anxiety and depression.

‘It’s not always just played out with individuals either,’ Clews says. ‘The mix of personality types in teams can also have an impact on team performance. For example, an irritable personality type who is highly critical of others can significantly inhibit the playing ability of athletes who are interpersonally sensitive. Fearful of criticism, the interpersonally sensitive athlete may hesitate in the field of play resulting in lost opportunities. The irony is, the irritable personality type may then feel justified in their negative comments because mistakes were made, with little self-awareness as to how their negativity was a significant factor in the poor performance of another.’

The community nature of sports clubs often places them in ideal positions to notice potential at-risk individuals who may be susceptible to mental health difficulties and provide avenues for support. Wired for play is one of a number of resources emerging that can help clubs understand and support greater mental health among their members with information on how to identify individuals at risk, how to help and where to access help.