How to spot and overcome mental health problems in athletes?

Today is World Mental Health Day so we thought it only appropriate to speak to our sports psychologist Prof Andy Lane. Andy is a Professor of Sport Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. He is accredited from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) for scientific support and research and Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. He has authored more than 100 peer refereed journal articles and edited two books. He is a member of the Emotion regulation of others and self research network investigating emotion regulation in sport and other settings.

Seeing as he is a dab hand at writing and analysing emotion, we asked him to answer a few common questions that crop up surrounding mental health in the clinic / on the track / in the ring / poolside (you catch our drift).

Here’s what he had to say…

How can I tell if someone has a mental health problem?

This can be difficult particularly sports people who are very good at acting happy or confidence, and so they can mask mental health issues. Sport is also an emotional business and so people do feel low mood when they lose; this is normal. Mental health issues can be identified when low mood prolongs, with poor sleep, irritability, signs of anxiousness and anger. However, all of the above could have perfectly rational explanations. Encouraging people to self-monitor their mood, sleep, fatigue levels is useful and encouraging people to recognise when a low mood wont go away and then seek help in managing that.

What are the most common mental health problems in professional sport and how do you overcome them?

Issues related to negative mood which could stem from poor performance, non-selection, poor form, and then mental health issues related to physical issues such as overtraining, persistent fatigue and injury.
How to overcome come? Athletes need good support systems and so people to talk to who care about them as a person and not as an athlete. A key part of treating mental health is teaching people good self-regulation skills so that they can identify or at least recognise, that mental issues varies and that everyone is vulnerable to some extent. And from that, have a range of strategies that could be used where the focus is directly on improving mental health.

What do you recommend to keep your mental health stable and fit?

Exercise is a great strategy for maintaining mental health but in athletes exercise can outcome focused and so be the cause of bad mood in the first place. Its important to identify that the goal of the session is to enhance mood and to do that you make the intensity of the session so that its easy, select an outdoor and preferably in a natural setting. If that is not possible, then make the environment as pleasant as possible; if in a gym, select pleasant music, watch something interesting – what you want to do is make it is as pleasant an experience as possible.
It is good to have a range of different strategies. Intentionally watching comedy – something to make you laugh is useful. Youtube makes this possible as you can search for funny scenes and youtube bunches the comedy together and so you can do one search and then watch the other clips being suggested. A third option is to plan an enjoyable activity that will occur in the future – plan a short break, a visit, and so by giving yourself something to look forward to that you enjoy is a good thing.

If you are concerned about the mental welfare of a loved one, a friend, or yourself there are some amazing foundations, charities and communities like Mind out there providing support, help and advice. Just remember, you are NOT alone in this.

If you are interested in speaking to Professor Andy Lane or enquiring about our ‘Sports Psychology Programme’ at the clinic, drop us an email at