Achieving mental wellness: Lessons from High Performance Sport

Published On: January 24, 2017

Achieving mental wellness:

Lessons from High Performance Sport


Stress, anxiety, fear and vulnerability are things that we are supposed to feel, but they can become overwhelming, especially when we aren’t equipped with the right tools to deal with them.

To be our best selves and deliver our best performances, we have to be well first. Our mental health, like our physical health, needs building and nurturing. Here are four elements integral to mental wellness.

1. Accept who you are

You can’t change your genes. Just like a runner might be best suited to a certain distance, each person is genetically predisposed to respond to high-stress environments in a certain way. This isn’t to say that we can’t modify the way we respond – humans do have the capacity to modify their physical and mental parameters with the right kind of work.

In the same way an 800m runner can become a good 1500m runner with the right training, each of us has the ability to train our brains to respond a little differently than they otherwise would in difficult situations. To do this, our brains need training, maintenance, and recovery the same as any athlete who is striving for greatness.

Modifying your parameters starts with accepting how you respond. If you’re feeling scared or stressed, own it! Instead of repressing unwanted feelings, acknowledge and accept how you naturally react. Practice how you want to respond instead of feeling stressed, anxious, nervous or scared.

“Bringing yourself to what you do makes all the difference.” 

Find or create an environment where you can accept yourself unconditionally. Accepting who you are is important, whether you’re working on physical or mental resilience. None of us is physically or mentally strong in every single way – but each of our strengths and flaws are a part of who we are.


2. Do more over time
the “progressive overload” approach

If you ask someone who is starting a weights program for the first time ever to lift 200 pounds, they probably won’t be able to do it right away. Of course this makes sense – they haven’t been trained to lift a significant load, and expecting them to lift it is unreasonable. Why, then, do we regularly expect ourselves to deal with huge stress loads we haven’t trained ourselves to handle?

Remember that each of us starts in our own place.

We don’t all start our journeys in the same place. Take two weightlifters who are looking to improve their muscular strength. Our first weightlifter, a thin woman with little muscle mass is able deadlift 60 pounds her first day. Our second weightlifter has a higher muscle mass, and is sturdily built – she’s able to deadlift 110 pounds her first day.

Each of us works this way with mental stresses as well. Someone who has a hard time dealing with stress will have a different starting point (and a different path to mental wellness) than someone who naturally handles stress with ease.

Progressive Overload

Increasing the stress on one’s body means it will get stronger. Both of our weightlifters begin with a weight they can manage relatively well, and as their strength increases, they’ll be able to lift heavier weights over time. The same applies to being mentally well. Our capacity to deal with mental distress has to be increased gradually.

Remember why you’re putting in the work. Stay connected to your purpose, whether your goal is to be stronger or healthier, or simply to challenge yourself to be better.

3. Grow from challenge (“mental hypertrophy”)

In sport science, muscular hypertrophy is an effective method of training to increase muscular strength. In order to become stronger, our weightlifters both put their muscles under a little more stress than they can handle. Our muscle growth occurs most rapidly when we allow our muscles to tear slightly, and then provide them with what they need to build back stronger.

The only way to increase our capacity for dealing with stress is by properly using our failures as a means to come back better. Being slightly uncomfortable, either physically or mentally, indicates we are allowing ourselves to learn to be better, more resilient individuals.

“When we stop letting people fail, they start living safely. We teach them not to live fully or to their true potential.”

4. Recovery is essential

When the body endures physical distress, athletes know they need to nurture themselves and make a habit of doing this consistently. They eat well, rehydrate, and do what they have to in order for their bodies to be ready. When one endures mental distress, we often neglect taking a break, and fail to make intentional steps towards recovery.

Longer and more intense periods of stress require more careful and intentional recovery. A serious injury means rest, recovery, and careful rehabilitation is necessary in both sport and life, and each of us needs to give ourselves time and proper care so we can recover from that setback or traumatic event.

Remove the stimulus:

If a certain training exercise has caused or exacerbated an injury, don’t do it! Similarly, we should try and remove ourselves from whatever has caused or exacerbated mental distress.

Work through the cause of your stress:

In order to rehabilitate an injury or deal with trauma, identifying the cause and its effects is an important step.

Add a substrate:

Like eating properly can help us re-energize for our next workout, we require building blocks to help us return to a balanced state.

Like staying in good physical form, mental stamina requires careful training as well as upkeep. Neither mental nor physical fitness is permanent!

Remember that success does not make you invulnerable. 

Achieving a goal, standing on a podium, or setting a record doesn’t make you invulnerable. The fiercest competitor can get injured or out-performed. A mentally resilient individual will be set back when something difficult comes their way – injuries happen in life just like they do in sport. Mental wellness equips elite athletes (and the average person) with the ability to bounce back.

Vulnerability, whether physical or mental, creates the opportunity for greatness.

January 25, 2017 is Bell Let’s Talk Day. Click here to find out how you can help promote the importance of mental wellness.