How athletes can protect their mental health, at the Commonwealth Games and beyond

A common theme kept recurring during the swimming program at the Commonwealth Games.

It wasn't Australia sweeping most of the medals on offer, or the extraneous speculation on swimmers' personal lives.

It was the deeper conversation around mental health, motivation, and the “come down”.

It was particularly apparent with the Dolphins, a team bred to succeed in a culture of excellence and high performance.

How athletes can protect their mental health, at the Commonwealth Games and beyond

Kyle Chalmers says he has had “big battles with mental health”. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Several Australian swimmers have shared their mental health struggles during the Games, including Kyle Chalmers, who spoke with passion and eloquence after winning the men's 100 metres freestyle.

“I've had definitely big battles with mental health over a long time, and it's one of the most-challenging things that I've had to face and see my teammates face and family face,” he said after the race.

“I think it's important that people have the courage to stand up and speak about it.”

“Mentally, I just didn't want to have to go back to that situation where I was kicking for six months,” she said after the swimming finished.

“So I think for now, I'm just going to take some time to focus on myself get my mental health right and get me loving the sport and wanting to be back swimming faster than ever again.

“And I think that's the best way that I can really keep on swimming fast.”

'Mental health is a core component of a culture of excellence'

Professor Joan Duda, from the University of Birmingham, is known internationally for her work in the space of motivation psychology and coaching.

She says the dialogue around mental health in sport is improving, thanks to the likes of Chalmers, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles.

How athletes can protect their mental health, at the Commonwealth Games and beyond

US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competition to focus on her mental well-being.(AP: Gregory Bull)

And sports are committing more resources to support staff, like psychologists and mental health officers, to ensure athletes can access the help they need.

She said a statement from the International Society of Sports Psychology summed it up best: “Mental health is a core component of a culture of excellence.”

“You cannot have a healthy, excellent sport culture without knowing that we have to have conversations about mental health and we have to do what we can to try to promote sustained mental health,” Professor Duda said.

“When we talk about athletes, we need to recognise that there's mental health issues that we need to keep an eye on and to be promoting optimal healthy engagement while they're participating in sport.”

But it doesn't end once they leave the field of play.

“These mental health considerations are continuous. It's not a one-shot deal,” she said.

And pinpointing what motivates athletes is key in helping them deal with the “hangover” after a major event like the Commonwealth Games.

“You do have a bit of a come down but you're down, you're not out,” Professor Duda said.

“And I think what is really important is the question of, why are you there in the first place? Is the love of your sport still there? Are you doing this because you want to or you feel obligated?

“Because if the flame for your sport and all it brings to you and the challenge that it presents is still there, you're going to find a way to rekindle it.”

Professor Duda says some of the best examples are seen in tennis, where the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have nothing left to achieve in the sport, but still play on.

“I think sometimes when athletes do have motivational problems in the long term is maybe the reason they're engaging in sport is not as autonomous or intrinsic.”

The 'significant others' in sport

Whether it's a team sport or an individual affair, once athletes start to climb the ladder to the elite ranks, the number of “significant others” around them increases, including governing bodies, sponsors and the media.

Professor Duda says coaches lie at the heart of the ecosystem, and they must be equipped to support athletes at all levels.

How athletes can protect their mental health, at the Commonwealth Games and beyond

Dean Boxall, coach of swimmer Ariarne Titmus, went viral during the Tokyo Olympics for his wild celebrations of her gold medal in the 400m freestyle.(Getty Images: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance)

She runs a program called Empowering Coaching, which helps coaches, teachers, and others tap into athletes' intrinsic motivation, and ensure they remain in sport.

“[We say] you started to coach because you want to have an impact on athletes and guess what you do,” she says.

“So what kind of environment are you creating for your athletes that it's more likely they're going to have this autonomous desire to continue and engage and enjoy their sport, no matter what competitive level?”

Whether it's the grassroots, or the Commonwealth Games, it's all about maintaining the love of the game.

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