The charity conducted the survey, delivered and collated by EVERFI, the leading educational research agency, after athletes revealed mental health and wellbeing to be in the top three issues they care most passionately about – alongside the cost and accessibility of sport, and tackling discrimination.1
The survey sought to understand the state of athletes' mental health and wellbeing, as well as their perceptions of the services and support available to them. SportsAid also wished to establish what the next generation of athletes feel about the topic in general, reflecting on their own experiences, to inform how the charity can develop and extend this support. The survey was entirely anonymous and confidential. The key findings can be found further down but here’s a few additional headlines:
• 9 out of 10 athletes would find it useful to have access to more mental health resources, tools and sessions (in-person and online) with the aim of helping them in their day-to-day lives.
• 62% of athletes feel they have enough knowledge and support to take care of their mental health but nearly a third say that they don’t with 14% not feeling comfortable asking for help.
• Nearly half of athletes feel their involvement in performance sport creates more anxiety than other areas of their life with 26% saying it can be too difficult to manage at times.
• Two thirds of female athletes experience day-to-day anxiety, compared to just over half of male athletes, with the main factors being sporting performance, body image and friendships.
• Two thirds of athletes feel their sporting performance has been the main cause of anxiety in their day-to-day lives alongside school/exams (53%) and money/cost of living (33%).
• 23% of athletes who rate their mental health as ‘poor’ say they have no access to mental health services - they are also less likely to ask for help than those with ‘good’ mental health.
SportsAid has been providing information and advice on mental health and wellbeing to young sports people and their parents and guardians, free of charge, for several years. In partnership with BelievePerform, wellbeing specialists in sport and education, an online platform is currently in place which offers extensive applied and practical resources to support the mental fitness of athletes, while also guiding parents and guardians on how they can best support and encourage their children to thrive inside and outside of sport.
“Mental ill health is a significant condition affecting many young people globally, especially those who may have experienced uncertainty and disruption in their education and development during the pandemic period,” said Tim Lawler MBE, Chief Executive of SportsAid. “Our review of existing research in this area has revealed two key things: the first is that approximately half of all common mental health disorders emerge before the age of 18 and an estimated 58% of these conditions in adolescents can go undetected and untreated.2 The second being specific to talented young athletes, with an apparent underlying stigma to mental health and a sense of negativity towards seeking help, including some fears of the consequences of seeking help in a performance sport context.2
“SportsAid recognises that there is an unmet need in the provision of consistent and easily accessible support for young, talented sports people in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. Not simply to deal with conditions as they may arise, but to help develop the mind health skills to manage the inevitable challenges they will encounter and lead a happy and healthy life. To this end, SportsAid and BelievePerform have been working together to create a more curriculum-type approach to offer progressive support to athletes and their families in the area of mental wellbeing. We have developed an engaging, digestible, self-reflecting programme which sparks interest and gives athletes the tools to be able to develop their mind health. The programme seeks to empower athletes and give them the opportunity to practice mind skills that allow them to thrive in life and sport.”
Built around evidence-based core pillars, the SportsAid mind health programme will provide videos, tools and infographics that help athletes to take a proactive approach in developing their mental wellbeing. The programme will incorporate six themes: Resilience; Challenge Response; Healthy Comparison; Confidence; Performance Anxiety; and Identity. To help the programme be as relevant as possible, short videos of SportsAid alumni and athletes discussing their own experiences on these topics will be included to ensure maximum impact and relatability.
Tim added: “We are appealing for support from individuals and organisations to help the charity invest further in this area of work - including in-depth longitudinal research - so that young sports people and their families have the support and advice they need at this key time in their development. As has been widely noted, young people face many life circumstances and milestones that can challenge their mental and physical health, yet the support for the former is significantly lagging that of the latter.”
Please contact Serena Castiglione, Head of Fundraising at SportsAid, on email@example.com if you would like to find out more about how you can support the charity and make a real difference to the lives of young people in the area of mental health and wellbeing.
The survey, undertaken in September 2023, was completed by 379 respondents - each of whom are receiving support from SportsAid this year. They are the country’s brightest prospects and were nominated to the charity by the national governing bodies of their respective sports. 55% of the respondents were under 18 years old, 37% between 18 and 24, and 8% from the 25+ bracket.
The respondent group was very diverse. There was a near even gender split (46% male, 54% female) overall. 78% of respondents were able-bodied (297 athletes) with 22% having a disability (82 athletes). 20% of respondents came from ethnically diverse communities. The athletes who completed the survey were spread across 63 different sports – the majority of which are Olympic and Paralympic disciplines.
PHYSICAL HEALTH v MENTAL HEALTH
Overall, 88% of athletes rated their current physical health as either ‘good’ (46%) or ‘excellent’ (42%) with an average rating of 4.27 out of 5. However, mental health was not rated as highly by athletes compared to physical health. On average, scores for mental health were 3.77 out of 5, with 66% of athletes rating it either ‘good’ (46%) or ‘excellent’ (20%).
• Those athletes with lower scores for physical health tended to also score lower for their mental health.
• 74% of male athletes rate their mental health as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ compared to 58% of females.
• 75% of female athletes believe that good mental health is very important for their sporting performance compared with 66% of male athletes.
EXPERIENCING INCREASED ANXIETY LEVELS
47% of athletes feel their involvement in a high-performance sporting environment creates more anxiety than other areas of their life with 26% saying it can be too difficult to manage at times (22% occasionally and 4% often). On the other hand, 37% do not feel that sport creates additional pressure.
• 20% of athletes feel anxious 'often' (18%) or 'always' (2%) in their day-to-day lives with 42% saying they ‘occasionally’ experience this.
• Of those feeling some anxiety in their day-to-day lives, 66% of athletes feel their sporting performance is the main cause with school/exams (53%) ranking second and money/cost of living (33%) in third.
• Over half of the athletes (56%) ‘often’ feel happy and content about their sporting progression, whereas 7% say this is ‘rarely’ the case for them.
• Nearly half (47%) of athletes think that their anxiety affects their sporting performance to some extent, with (10%) of them saying ‘often’.
CAUSES OF ANXIETY FOR FEMALE ATHLETES
The performance of female athletes suffers more because of anxiety and ‘poor’ mental health than their male counterparts. A third (33%) of female athletes state that the anxieties and pressures they face can be ‘occasionally’, ‘often’ or ’always’ too difficult to manage, in comparison to only 18% of males.
The cause of this appears to be linked to their sport:
• 71% of female athletes think their sporting performance might be one of the main causes of their day-to-day anxiety in comparison to 59% of males.
• 52% of females feel their involvement in a high-performance sporting environment creates more anxiety and pressure for them than other areas of their lives (40% for males).
• Anxieties are more likely to ‘often’ or ‘always’ affect the sporting performance of female athletes (15% compared to 7% of males).
• Only 58% of females feel happy and content with their sporting progression ‘often’ or ‘always’ (compared to 74% of males).
Female athletes (39%) see body image as one of the main causes of their anxiety (12% for males).
PRESSURE ON PARA ATHLETES AWAY FROM SPORT
Performance sport itself does not appear to be as much of a contributing factor to poorer mental health for para athletes. Of those who have experienced anxiety in their day-to-day lives within the past year, para athletes were less likely (44%) to say their sporting performance was the main cause of this compared to non-para athletes (73%).
They were also less likely to consider that their involvement in a performance sporting environment created more anxiety and pressure for them than other areas of their life. Instead, para athletes appear to attribute their anxieties more generally to their disability, their work and future job prospects, as well as their own and their family’s health.
INCREASED NEED FOR SUPPORT AND SERVICES
Over half of athletes who rated their mental health as ‘poor’ don’t feel they have enough knowledge or support to take care of it. They are also less likely to have access to the services they need. Female athletes, in particular, find their anxieties more difficult to manage and need greater support.
• Whilst 62% of athletes feel they have enough knowledge and support to take care of their mental health, nearly a third of athletes (32%) feel they don’t.
• 69% of athletes know who to ask for help if they feel their anxiety is too difficult to manage with 71% saying that good mental health is very important to their sporting performance.
• 66% of athletes rate their mental health as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ with 64% saying they would feel comfortable asking for help if they felt their anxiety was too difficult to manage.
23% of athletes who rate their mental health as ‘poor’ say they have no access at all to mental health services and notably, they are also less likely to ask for help than those with ‘good’ mental health. In a more sporting context, 43% of athletes who rate their mental health as ‘poor’ feel they have no access at all to sport psychology support.
• Just under three quarters (74%) of para athletes have ‘little’, ‘none’ or ‘are unsure’ about what mental health services AND sport psychology support is available to them.
• Almost a third of para athletes (27%) have no access to sport psychology support at all.
• 60% of athletes said they have ‘some’ or a ‘lot’ of access to mental health services, and 46% also felt the same with regards to sport psychology support.
APPETITE FOR MORE MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
Over three quarters of athletes would appreciate more mental health support within their sport - focusing specifically on improving performance. A smaller number would also appreciate support relating to helping them in their daily lives – particularly females and para athletes.
• 76% of athletes would find it ‘quite useful’ (46%) or ‘extremely useful’ (30%) to have access to mental health services within their sport; 21% feel it would be a ‘little useful’.
• 75% of athletes would find it ‘quite useful’ (43%) or ‘extremely useful’ (32%) to receive mental health resources, tools and sessions from SportsAid to specifically help their sporting performance.
• 59% of athletes would find it ‘quite useful’ (39%) or ‘extremely useful’ (20%) to receive mental health resources, tools and sessions from SportsAid to help their day-to-day lives.
DEVELOPING SUPPORT FOR MENTAL FITNESS
Whilst research and support of mental wellbeing for high-performance (often termed ‘elite’) athletes has significantly progressed in the last decade or so, SportsAid recognises the risk of overlooking the next generation entering the sporting pathway environment. There are extra demands and pressures that may be the cause of undue anxiety and left unsupported, may lead to mental ill health.
Duncan Truswell, Strategic Lead for Talent and Performance at Sport England, the arm’s length body of government leading on sport and physical activity, said: “I welcome both the enhanced focus and structured approach to this really important area and the additional insight provided by this groundbreaking survey. Our aspiration is that England Talent Pathways provide formative and life enhancing development experiences that set young people up to thrive both in sport and their lives beyond it.
“Inherent features of competition are the unparalleled experiences and opportunities, which are presented alongside the stretch and challenge, which is an almost inevitable part of that journey and a young person’s growth and development. It is critical therefore that our young people, and those that care for them, are provided with the tools and resources to equip them, and the skills and support, along the way. SportsAid stepping further into this space, and inviting others to join them, will help our young people leverage the opportunity of sport, as well as their progression and performance.”
The provision of consistent, easily-accessible support and advice for the mental wellbeing of young athletes is an under-supported and an under-researched area1, but with sufficient resources, could become a routine provision – alongside other established support for their physical health – to help young athletes develop the skills to thrive mentally in whatever circumstances they may find themselves in, in sport, at school or with friends and family.
*The mental health and wellbeing survey was created by SportsAid and BelievePerform and conducted and collated by EVERFI.
1 Source: SportsAid annual athlete survey (March 2023)
2Source: Purcell R, et al British Journal of Sports Medicine (April 2023)