Mind over medal: how to look after your mental health when the pressure is on

Mind over medal: how to look after your mental health when the pressure is on

Mind over medal: how to look after your mental health when the pressure is on

Momentum’s Women Who Make Moves in Sports Summit teaches sportswomen the importance of mental health

 “It’s very damaging to sport, to tennis, to her probably. She’s hurting tennis. It’s a real problem.” Those were the words from Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, when four-time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka announced she would be skipping press interviews for the 2021 French Open in the interest of protecting her mental health.

But the real problem, which Moretton failed to address, is the one Osaka highlighted – that sports players are under immense pressure and need to look after themselves not only physically, but mentally as well. That same year, American gymnast Simone Biles – the most decorated gymnast in history, with seven Olympic medals – withdrew from the Tokyo Olympic Games, “to focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and well-being,” she said.

Mental health is an issue that affects athletes and high-performing individuals around the world, says Dr Kirsten van Heerden, a performance psychologist and former SA swimmer. Dr Van Heerden was speaking at Momentum’s inaugural Women Who Make Moves in Sports Summit, an exclusive event held from 8 to 9 August and attended by top female athletes from across the country. The Summit provided sportswomen with vital tools that would support them in commercialising their personal brands to better attract sponsorship and endorsement opportunities, and Dr Heerden’s talk highlighted the link between mental health and success.

While many athletes struggle with the challenges that come with always playing at their best, there are also hidden stresses related to career longevity and the financial insecurity that can come from a short-term career. In her practice, Dr Van Heerden regularly sees athletes grapple with issues of identity – as well as financial troubles. “Half of athletes retire sooner than expected, she shares, “while 45% struggle with their identity without their sport. They don’t have the skills to enter the business world and a staggering 70% of athletes go bankrupt or have severe financial difficulty within five years of retiring.”

The mental tools you need to cope

Dr Van Heerden points out that the reality of being an athlete is that your career will end – and while you should use the time to the best of your ability and make the most of it, you should also set up the rest of your life. This includes building a strong mental foundation. She suggests the following three tips on coping with pressure:


  1. Don’t confuse who you are with what you do

As an athlete, everyone knows you, but they don’t really care about you as a person – they just want you to perform. Everyone has an opinion on how you play, and everyone wants a bit of you. It’s easy to get wrapped up in that and lose your sense of worth, to feel those voices become overwhelming and distracting. But always remember: Your worth as a person is not dependent on your performance. You have a public persona and a private identity, which is the one where you know who you are and what you’re worth. To help you keep these two apart, it’s important to have an inner circle of people who know and love you and have your best interests at heart. Your circle – be it family, friends and/or your coach – are the people who know what’s really going on in your life. They know who you are as a player and who you are as a person, and they will help you maintain a balance in how you think of yourself. Like Oracene Williams told her daughters Venus and Serena: “Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. Stand tall and be proud in that.”


  1. Focus on your goals and performance – not the attention you get

Being pushed into the limelight and becoming a public persona doesn’t have to be painful or difficult – in fact, when trying to build a lucrative sporting career, it’s important to be visible. But the sudden public attention can cause anxiety and divert attention away from the core focus. Keeping your focus on your own goals and performance – both on and off the field – and not on the expectations and opinions swirling around you, can help you stay mentally strong and healthy.


  1. Don’t trust yourself only – get the best team around you

Athletes want the best training, the best coaches and the best facilities – but when it comes to money, they all too often look to their family or friends for advice. They don’t always get the best teams in place to look after their financial health. But you must get in the professionals to manage your money and your brand, since there is a big difference between making money and keeping money.


Momentum Financial Adviser Janine Horn adds that it is critical to build the right team around you. “Partner with experts, such as an experienced financial adviser or business coach.


“It is your responsibility to keep an eye on all your finances, but lean on professionals who will help you create sustainability in your career, safeguard your mental health and guide you on your journey to success.”

Tags: local news

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