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Researchers study impact of mental health on sport performance

Many sports stars have publically admitted how depression has affected their careers. Some go through temporary drops in performance, for others mental health can be career ending. One such example is cricketer Marcus Trescothick who brought his international playing career to an end due to depression.

Trescothick’s case and many others have been studied by researchers from the British research centers Loughborough University and the Open University. The research aim was to identify the link between mental illness and elite sporting performance. To explore this, twelve cases were reviewed across eight different sports. The aim of the study was to identify the effects of depression, low self-esteem, stress and feelings of failure in order to offer help and support for the next generation of athletes.

In a research brief, Loughborough Univeristy’s Dr David Fletcher said the researchers were keen to understand the triggers that cause depression. Here he explains: “We expect this research to help inform all those involved with elite athletes about the role that sport may play in relation to depression, particularly pre-cursors or warning signs such as an overly self-critical nature, perfectionism, and fear of failure.”

He added that by gaining an improved appreciation of depression in sport will enable “the better placed practitioners and coaches will be to identify, monitor and manage such episodes.”

The sports stars studied included Andre Agassi (tennis), Ricky Hatton (boxing), Serena Williams (tennis) and Johnny Wilkinson (rugby). Source material included the autobiographies written by the players. For instance, Agassi wrote about how much he went onto loathe tennis, a sport that brought him great success and prize money: “I hate tennis… Hate it with a dark and secret passion”, is one excerpt from the book.

One of the problems for addressing such cases, the researchers point out, is due to societal conceptions of mental illness and the stigma that continues to exits in some areas. For this reason a sports person will more easily open up about a physical injury than a psychological problem.

In terms of helping the next generation, the researchers have focused on the triggers for mental health issues. Often these are external triggers (or ‘stressors’). For instance, Serena Williams describes the “agony and anguish” of losing her sister Tunde in a shooting.

The research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology and it is titled “The dark side of top level sport: an autobiographic study of depressive experiences in elite sport performers.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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