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Mental health in performance sport

On a broad research project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the SFISM is to investigate what influences the mental health of Switzerland’s competitive athletes and how it can be improved. Originally entitled “Understanding and promoting mental health of competitive athletes”, the project in the field of applied psychology will begin in 2022, run for three years and comprise six studies. It will help the SFISM to build expertise around mental health in performance sport.

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The research project aims to learn more about the mental health of competitive athletes in Switzerland. One of its points of focus will be the career transition from youth talent to elite sport. Here, it will investigate which factors determine mental health during this phase.

Background and starting situation

Mental health means not just a lack of psychiatric symptoms, but also a sense of wellbeing itself. Current research findings suggest that competitive athletes are confronted with similar psychological problems to those who do not participate in performance sport – or more often even. Athletes have to face the same challenges in life as everyone else. However, the former are also confronted with conflicts between sport and other areas of life and with sport-specific stressors (e.g. injuries, career transitions, major sporting events, etc.). In addition, some athletes are unhealthy perfectionists, which might increase their risk of mental health disorders. The aim of the project is to help close research gaps in this field.

A total of six studies by 2024

  • The first phase will generate the base knowledge: the first study will investigate the prevalence of four common mental health problems (depression, anxiety, eating disorders and sleep problems) and wellbeing across a representative sample of Swiss elite athletes. The second will explore the measures taken by sports associations to promote mental health and how they view those measures.
  • On the basis of this knowledge, two studies will address the career transition from youth talent to elite sport: one study will investigate which factors influence the degree of mental health during this phase. A further study will develop and evaluate the effectiveness of an online intervention to improve mental health during this transition.
  • The two concluding studies will focus on difficult phases or incidents in the life of an athlete that may influence mental health: one study will investigate what determines mental health during the rehabilitation process following injuries. Another will look at whether an online intervention improves the mental health of competitive athletes before major events.

From practice to research and back again

The SNSF’s grant scheme “From Practice to Science” is aimed at practitioners at universities of applied sciences and helps them to devote themselves to research. The project is headed by Dr Philipp Röthlin, a sports psychology researcher at the SFISM.

The findings of the six studies are to feed back into the sports system: it is planned to develop recommendations for associations on how they can best promote the mental health of their athletes. Trainers or sports psychologists are to be given tools to enable them to support their mentees, particularly during vulnerable phases. In addition, athletes will be given access to validated online interventions. The findings will also feed into the sports system through the SFISM’s training courses and Sports Coach Education Switzerland. Finally, recreational sport will benefit through the Youth+Sport courses.