Man, researchers sure know how to churn out information on physical recovery in athletes. But… something’s missing.
Where is all the research on mental and emotional recovery?
Athletes don’t just leave the field physically tired… they’re mentally tired, too.
Competition is a mental battle.
Performance vs nervousness. Pressure vs composure.
Even the professionals have trouble balancing the mental components to meet expectations from coaches, teammates, and even themselves.
However, we haven’t done enough to protect ourselves from the mental and emotional scars left behind by inadequate TOTAL recovery.
FIFPro.org, an organization that represents footballers worldwide, has been doing amazing work to uncover gaps in athlete mental health care (among other trends in athlete wellness).
One of their latest studies revealed the statistics below:
So what’s being done? How do we begin educating our players on managing mental and emotional stress? Do we even have all that information?
What Do We Know?
We are in an era of psychological research in athletes where we are still discovering the problem.
Although you could argue that we will always be discovering new components to mental wellness, this is a genuinely new arena where not many resources are available.
In fact, a study published in July 2022 has a title that literally asks: Where are the treatment studies? (?!?!?!?, I may add)
There are gaps in understanding, but we do know some things.
Here are some of the major trends related to mental wellness in soccer players:
- Number of injuries correlates with increased mental trauma (Soccology.com)
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety are very high among current players, which continues to affect them after retirement. (FIFPRO.org)
- Retired athletes commonly display adverse behaviors such as alcohol/substance misuse, feelings of distress, and disturbed sleeping patterns. (FIFPRO.org, 2)
- There is correlation between the relatively new diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (from chronic concussion symptoms) and mental disorders. (3)
The most recommended intervention for existing disorders among athletes is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) because it provides structure to their recovery, similar to what athletes are familiar with already. Although… no one really knows if this works consistently. (1)
We also know that there are alternative therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), and Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment approaches. We just don’t know how effective those are, either… But some are quite promising. (1)
What Don’t We Know?
The answer sucks. We don’t know a lot.
Our understanding about athlete mental wellness, especially in soccer, is in its grassroot stages.
But, we’ve all seen prominent athletes speak up about their own struggles, and this is a major start in understanding what’s missing.
The more people speak about mental wellness, the more likely young players will take steps in preventing mental health issues from ANY provoking factor, whether it’s from lack of mental recovery in sport or something else.
We can all agree that preventing any injury or illness, whether it be mental or physical, is much easier than managing one later.
In an era where preventative medicine is on the rise, much of the developing research studies are focused on preventing mental health disorders just as much as treating them.
The biggest steps in preventative medicine are recognizing, acknowledging, and discussing a brewing concern before it develops into a major issue. Thankfully, we’re seeing this more often in the last ~5 years.
We’re also seeing large organizations, like FIFPro, tackle the issue at high levels of sport in hopes that findings will spark action across all athletes. Their DRAKE Study just began in July 2022, which will examine several major areas in athlete wellness including mental recovery.
The Drake Football Study Tackles Mental Recovery
“When players get a recovery period after a tournament, it focuses often on muscle and physiological recovery – but not on mental recovery.” – Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge, FIFPro Chief Medical Officer.
If I ask you, How do you physically recover after a game?, what would you say?
Maybe you eat a good meal or do light exercises in a pool. Perhaps you like to foam roll.
But if I ask you, How do you mentally recover after a game?, what would you say?
… Hard to answer. We know what we might need to do, but we can’t answer this question with a definite answer because the answer barely exists.
According to Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge, players should practice these three phases of mental recovery, especially after a long season of competition:
- Cognitive Detachment
The DRAKE Study aims to discover more gaps in a soccer player’s mental readiness and recovery as it relates to performance and overall wellbeing.
It may take 10 years for the study to complete, but it won’t take 10 years to start seeing major trends that would benefit us all.
As coaches, we should hope that this study illuminates how we can encourage our players to COMPLETELY recover and show resilience through their sport.
This study won’t just find ways to make better athletes. It will find ways to make better people.
How Can We Educate Players on Mental Wellness & Recovery?
The ultimate question.
We don’t know what to tell coaches, parents, and players regarding mental recovery… yet.
However, by seeing the trends in recent studies and the infographic above, we can already draw some conclusions.
Based on what we know, we can:
- Encourage players to physically recover well and prevent injury since recurring injury is associated with mental trauma.
- Provide an open environment where players can discuss their internal battles, whether it’s among friends, within a team, between family members, or with a third party.
- Prevent concussion and/or manage concussions correctly.
- Teach players that their worth is not determined by their success or longevity in a sport.
The benefits include teaching players to develop their own:
- Leadership skills by helping others
Mental health concerns should not be a reason to keep a player out of any sport.
Although sport is challenging and demanding, it can provide players with so much opportunity for personal growth.
Overcoming internal obstacles and emotional battles is a huge opportunity to develop character, resilience, and empathy in and out of sport. The benefits of sport participation outweighs the risks nearly every time.
Let’s help athletes become the best version of themselves in sport by providing support in both physical and mental endeavors.
1. Ekelund R, Holmström S, Stenling A. Mental Health in Athletes: Where Are the Treatment Studies? Front Psychol. 2022 Jul 4;13:781177. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.781177. PMID: 35859831; PMCID: PMC9289539.
2. Kilic Ö, Carmody S, Upmeijer J, Kerkhoffs GMMJ, Purcell R, Rice S, Gouttebarge V. Prevalence of mental health symptoms among male and female Australian professional footballers. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2021 Jul 26;7(3):e001043. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2021-001043. PMID: 34394952; PMCID: PMC8314730.
3. Russell ER, McCabe T, Mackay DF, et al. Mental health and suicide in former professional soccer players. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2020; 91:1256-1260.