The Mental Game

Mental health stigma often stops athletes from seeking help, yet prioritizing mental wellness is key for peak performance.

Authors: Chloe Carr, Cheryl D'Cruz-Young, Andrés Tapia

In recent years, some of the world's most prominent athletes have also spoken up about their mental health struggles. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka are among those who have withdrawn from major competitions to prioritize their well-being. Their decisions have sparked a global conversation about the importance of mental health in sports.

Athletes face immense pressure to always perform at their best, which can take a toll on their mental well-being. And having to deal with the constant scrutiny from fans, coaches, and media can further heighten their stress levels. Mental health left uncared for can lead to worsened performance, burnout, and even quitting. Unfortunately for many athletes, adequate care for mental health is often overlooked.

In its new paper, “The Mental Game,” Korn Ferry looks at mental well-being and its impact on an athlete’s overall performance when not properly maintained. The report dives deep into the barriers that keep competitors from seeking help, and what organizations can do to better support mental wellness. When an athlete is at peak mental and physical health, their performance often follows suit.

6 ways to improve the mental game of athletes

Earlier this season, Louisiana State University (LSU) basketball star Angel Reese took some time away from the court to care for her mental health. Reese explained in a Sports Illustrated article that Shaquille O'Neal, now a sports analyst, offered her valuable advice during her time away. As an LSU alum and Hall of Famer, O’Neal acted as a mentor, understanding the pressures that athletes—at all levels—face.

Mental health is not a luxury, but a necessity. To improve and maintain mental health in sports, coaches, athletes, and organizations need to invest more time, focus, and resources in this aspect of the game. Here are six actionable strategies to jumping the mental hurdle:

  1. Teach mental skills training, such as goal setting, imagery, relaxation, self-talk, or mindfulness, to help athletes enhance their mental abilities.
  2. Lean on sports psychologists to provide mental health education and awareness to improve the mental game of athletes and optimize their performance.
  3. Offer free mental health services and support, such as counseling, therapy, or coaching, to help athletes cope with stress, trauma, or other mental health struggles, and reduce the stigma and barriers around seeking help.
  4. Include access to mental health services and support in athlete benefit packages, so that athletes know where to go for easy and affordable help.
  5. Foster a positive and supportive culture for athletes to thrive, where they feel valued, respected, and trusted. A good culture ensures the athletic experience isn't a revolving door of stress and suffering.
  6. Hire coaches who prioritize mental well-being, using respectful and adaptable coaching styles. Find a balance between challenge and support, adjusting communication to individual athlete needs for effective performance.

Improving and maintaining the mental health of athletes can not only help them achieve their potential but also support and enhance other aspects of their lives. By breaking down the stigma, implementing supportive policies, and providing tools to develop resilience and care for themselves, athletic spaces can foster an environment that values and develops the whole athlete, ultimately leading to new heights in performance, wellness, and success.