How does mental health affect the physical performance of athletes?

In the wake of the Covid pandemic, mental health has become one of the hot topics of our time, and that’s a good thing. While the word has gotten out and topics like depression or burnout are getting more media coverage, mental health still struggles to get attention in the world of sports. However, this would be the key to the success of the greatest athletes. QG spoke to experts who work with elite athletes to understand how mental health directly affects performance, why the brain can sometimes erase years of physical training by failing on the big day, and how athletes can succeed in finding a good physical and mental balance.

Human, above all else

To begin to answer this question, Meriem Salmi, a sports psychologist for 30 years, reminds us of the obvious: before being a top athlete, an athlete is a person. But he is also a different individual who faces daily pressure everywhere. “In the world of sports, an athlete must always be efficient, be the best, because competition is everywhere. They can be replaced very quickly”, – emphasizes the psychologist and the author of the book Believe in your dreams and find your way, released in 2018. Thomas Sammuth, a mental coach of more than 20 years who has developed a method that has been much criticized in the sports world over the years, focusing only on human performance, tried to find out how much of this competitive environment there is. formed the personality of the athletes. “First of all, I wanted to know to what extent an athlete can be assessed at his fair value. I’ve seen many Olympic medalists become depressed at the end of their careers because they didn’t know who they were.

Oftentimes, young athletes must get to know each other in this worrisome environment, face difficulty and uncertainty, and not necessarily have the time and space to work on their personal journey—more or less difficult, family environment, perhaps unstable or possible trauma or complexes. There are so many parameters that Meriem Salmi takes into account to track an athlete and try to optimize their performance. “The system is an approach to all parameters, professional life but also personal life or physical, that can destabilize an athlete,” he tells us. We are working on the whole ‘system’ that surrounds it to better support it.”

Thomas Sammut’s method is based on the same principles. “The sports world is full of performance and results. He struggles to keep his head above water. Always higher, higher, stronger. And the athlete experiences all this. Many athletes today have mental disorders because it is too much,” confirms Thomas Sammut, mental coach of the Marseille swimming circle, who works especially with Camille Lacourt or Florent Manaudou. When the latter started working with athletes, well-being was not a topic at all in French sports, focusing only on numbers. A cultural question according to Thomas Sammuth, who thinks that our society is completely focused on the pursuit of results in school, business or sports. According to Meriem Salmi, the Anglo-Saxon countries are far ahead in these matters. These two specialists, who are often assimilated to gurus without reliable knowledge of the sport, nevertheless participated in the performances of Teddy Riner, the greatest French champions of recent years, or the above-mentioned swimmers.

An overworked talent

Elite athletes with extraordinary physical abilities also have extraordinary cognitive abilities. A football player, rugby player or basketball player can instantly analyze their surroundings in order to react and take the right actions. Their senses, concentration and attention skills are highly developed. Meriem Salmi tries to “develop environmental adaptation skills” with her athletes. The speech that the psychologist had difficulty hearing with his various speeches. “They laughed at me when I said that Franck Ribery was smart. Of course he’s smart! Just watch him play. Intelligence is plural, and that of athletes is impressive. They are talented.”

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