Mental health of athletes: how to overcome competitive pressure?

It takes a lot more than just raw talent to be an athlete. Whether you’re just starting out or turning pro, managing competitive pressure is something that all athletes in all sports have to deal with. But more often than not, the outcome of the competition, whether you win or lose, is emphasized more than the mental clarity needed to perform at your best.

Kristin Felgenauer, MSW, behavioral therapist and clinical social worker for Henry Ford Health System, discusses one of the most difficult challenges athletes face during competitions: their own mental health.

“Athletes set high standards for themselves and often feel there is a greater pressure to succeed so they don’t let people down,” says Felgenauer. “They try to succeed not only for themselves, but also for their parents, coaches, teammates, etc.”

For athletes, the swings of their highs and lows seem greater than in other scenarios – the satisfaction and joy when you win versus the heartbreak and disappointment when you lose. As a result, mental exhaustion and other psychological problems may become more common, especially at higher levels of competition.

The importance of mental clarity in sports

In almost any sport, a split second decision can make or break the outcome of your performance. You have to be sharp, focused and able to stay in the game. But if you struggle with your mental health or don’t have the clarity to make these decisions, you run the risk of not only underperforming, but more importantly, being seriously injured.

“Mental stress can hinder your ability to always perform,” says Felgenauer. “Instead, learn strategies for approaching competition with a healthier mindset.”

Felgenauer shares some advice she gives athletes to better manage their mental health:

  • Focus on what you need to do. Take the competition out of the equation and focus on what your body needs to be the best version of yourself. In addition to exercise and conditioning, also take care of your body. Get plenty of sleep, eat nutritiously, and practice injury prevention techniques such as stretching and taking rest days.
  • Talk through your stressors. Don’t hold on to the things that frustrate you. Instead, confide in a friend, relative, or a professional. Sometimes talking about things is one of the best ways to support good mental health.
  • Set realistic goals. Wanting to be the best at a sport is every athlete’s dream, but progress and success take work. Re-evaluate your personal goals to make sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard or setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.
  • Remember why you started. The enormous pressure that athletes put on themselves can quickly cause burnout. Many athletes are beginning to see their sport as a job rather than a passion or hobby. Try to refocus your mindset to emphasize why you chose this sport and how far you’ve come since you started.
  • Talk to professionals. Let your trainer, coach or doctor know that you are having a hard time. Don’t think you can handle everything on your own. Talking to someone who has experience helping athletes cope with mental stress — even if you’re working with a licensed therapist — can help you develop the tools you need to get back on track.

How to advocate for athletes?

Everyone is not made to be an athlete. But if you enjoy watching sports, coaching, or being an athlete’s parent or guardian, Felgenauer says there’s still plenty you can do to support athletes’ mental health and well-being.

“Contact athletes, especially if you notice any behavioral changes,” says Felgenauer. “Always ask if there’s anything you can do to help.”

In addition, remember that it is important to treat athletes as more than just their sport. It can be easy to forget that athletes have a whole life outside of the sport they play. If you can, be sure to interact with out-of-competition athletes and avoid leading any conversations or interactions with their sport.

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To find a physician or therapist at Henry Ford, visit or call 1-800-436-7936.

Kristin Felgenauer is a behavioral therapist and social worker at the clinic. She sees patients at One Ford Place in Detroit.

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