Wellbeing support for elite athletes: What’s the state of play?

In February 1997, in his heavyweight title fight with Britain’s Lennox Lewis, US boxer Oliver McCall suffered a very public mental health breakdown. The fifth round saw an overwrought and tearful McCall unable to defend himself, and the fight was stopped. Public condemnation was swift and brutal, beginning with the boos and thrown drinks as he left the arena.

We’ve come a long way since then. When elite gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics final, citing mental health issues, there was an outpouring of public sympathy. 62% of Americans supported her decision — with over half in strong support — and only 13% opposed it.

Finally, and not before time, there’s a public recognition that elite athletes often face tremendous challenges to their wellbeing — and that’s something to be celebrated. It’s a massive leap forward from the belief that working as a professional athlete must be all rainbows and unicorns.

What’s needed to match this see change in attitudes is quality wellbeing provision for all of our athletes and teams. To be sure, here in the UK, many sportspeople do enjoy excellent support, but this isn’t yet universal. As wellbeing consultants who work with high level athletes, we see two areas in particular where things could sometimes improve.

Wanted: a more holistic approach

Our elite UK athletes receive world-class skills, strength development and cardiovascular coaching — not to mention nutritional advice and more. However, unless the support system takes a holistic approach, it can still leave significant gaps.

For example, it’s long been understood both that sleep quality and duration have a profound effect on athletic performance, and that athletes often fail to get sufficient sleep. At elite levels, this is likely to be monitored and addressed, but that leaves many teams and athletes who lack the resources or knowledge to do this. And that means one key determinant of both wellbeing and performance is not integrated into their coaching and support systems.

This is just one illustration of the need for a holistic approach to an athlete’s needs, one which looks at the wider picture of athlete wellbeing. It’s the working method we used in our own partnership with Cricket Scotland during their T20 Cricket World Cup campaign. Taking a 360 degree view of physical and mental health allowed us to effectively support the wellbeing of players and staff, both before and during their UAE tour.

The need for data gathering

You might think that gathering data was the last problem elite athletes face — surely top-level sportspeople already track, record and review everything affecting their performance? Yet once again, there can be significant gaps in provision.

Most notably, the cognitive performance of our athletes is rarely investigated, let alone monitored.  It’s a strange omission, given the large body of evidence linking cognitive function with athletic performance, in sports ranging from from  ultramarathons to top-level football. And given that cognitive function influenced by factors such as stress, sleep, nutrition, hydration status and fatigue, there’s a clear case for knowing our athletes’ cognitive status.

Our own data-gathering regularly incorporates measures of cognitive function, and our view is that tracking this gives us important insights into how an athlete is feeling and performing.

Towards a  brighter future

Although we’ve looked at two common shortcomings in provision, there’s no question that wellbeing support for athletes is improving.

Yet where teams lack complete in-house support, finding the perfect provider can be difficult. Although the UK boasts many wellbeing consultancies, few offer the kind of data gathering we feel is central to informing individualised wellbeing recommendations. Fewer still have experience of working with high-level teams or individual sportspeople. Consultancies may also lack staff with a background in competitive sport, and though this is far from essential, it can give consultants more understanding of the particular pressures their clients are facing.

As the wellbeing industry evolves and specialises, we’ve no doubt that these difficulties will gradually diminish. We look forward to being part of a bright future for wellbeing in sport.

 

ART Health Solutions is a wellbeing consultancy, providing effective, science-based wellbeing recommendations. With a history of participation in high-level sports, our team is especially well-equipped to work with athletic teams. We provide bespoke, holistic solutions which are generated by gathering data directly from individuals we’re seeking to help.

To learn how we can benefit your athletes, please contact our friendly team.

Dr Paul Smith

Chief Strategy Officer, ART Health Solutions

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