Joanne O'Riordan: Role of sports psychology in helping athletes with anxiety

Constant and determined commitment required to develop effective mental training regime

Nollaig O Sullivan is an accredited Sport and Exercise Psychologist, with more than 15 years of experience. Based in Co Clare and working through her website, I reached out to O Sullivan to find out what exactly it is she does, and more importantly, to raise awareness about athletes with anxiety. Here O Sullivan discusses her work, anxiety, stigmas, mental health issues and mental literacy.

Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it.

Why are you interested in sports psychology?

I always had an interest in psychology, understanding human behaviour. The main interest in becoming a sport and exercise psychologist was to delve more into the physical activity element. I wanted to understand how participation in exercise and physical activity affects an individual’s psychological development, health and wellbeing throughout the lifespan and gain an insight into how can we increase physical activity amongst the population so people can reap the psychological benefits. I was involved in several projects to increase the physical activity levels of the general population through psychological methods.

How did you get accredited as a sport and exercise psychologist in Ireland?

It is a long route which takes approximately seven years to complete. I completed a BSC in Psychology from University of Limerick, followed by completion of two masters, one from Queens University in Psychology of Performance and Enhancement in Sport and Health and my second masters was from University of Jordanstown, Ulster, in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Then, I obtained the Sport Ireland Institute Professional Accreditation. This shows that the sport psychology practitioner has achieved all the competencies necessary (via 1600 hrs/200 days supervised training post Masters) within their speciality to apply their professional knowledge effectively. In Ireland the accreditation process through Sport Ireland Institute is the gold standard. If you are working with a Sports Psychologist and their name is not on the list, you must ask why? They could be in the process, or they might be recognised by British Psychological Society or British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences.


What should athletes look out for in a sports psychologist?

There are only 23 sport and exercise psychology practitioners accredited with Sport Ireland Institute, which is on their website. A competent and professional sports psychologist should have all the relevant education, training and accreditation. The sport psychologist usually works in the background and is a support to all members of the multidisciplinary team. As a result, they must possess very high interpersonal skills to mediate between coaches and players and management and organisation. They must respect confidentiality and operate in an ethically sound manner at all time.

What do sports and exercise psychologists do?

The significant problem is that few people understand what sports psychology is and what sports psychologists do. Sport psychologists help athletes, coaches and teams. We cover several aspects such as assessing/profiling strengths and weaknesses; performance anxiety; coping with pressure; career transition issues; coach-athlete communication; self-confidence/efficacy; time management; dealing with injury; team building; initiating and maintaining exercise behaviours. We deliver educational programmes on performance and wellbeing topics such as goal setting, self-talk, resilience, imagery, focus and attention, emotional control.

What are the key messages for an athlete to enhance their performance?

Some athletes feel that sports psychology will be a quick fix. As with learning any new skill or any physical training, it takes time, effort and a lot of motivation to accomplish the goals you set. Mental training is not different from any other kind of training – it requires a constant and determined commitment to work on you. If you are looking to increase your performance it starts with self-awareness, not looking at anyone else or what anyone else is doing. Focus on what you can achieve and how you can implement it to achieve your optimal performance.

What are the main psychological problems/issues facing athletes today?

Athletes are viewed as having good physical and mental health. It’s common for people to assume that being in good physical health makes a person more likely to be in good mental health. However, it has also been found that being an athlete does not necessarily protect people from mental ill-health. Athletes may present with high-stress levels, especially around team selections and injury. Depression, anxiety and eating disorders are becoming more prevalent in this demographic too.

Does anxiety vary based on team sports and individual sports?

Athletes from individual sports tend to experience higher levels of general sports anxiety than athletes who play team sports. We know from the research, and it has been my experience that athletes of individual sports are more likely to experience competitive anxiety than those in team sports which suggests that when athletes compete as individuals, the pressure to achieve the desired outcome is perceived as entirely down to that individual alone, and this may intensify anxiety symptoms. There are stressors that individual and team athletes may perceive equally as pressure such as public scrutiny, selections, career uncertainty, injury. If perspective cannot be achieved, these perceived pressures can likely cause the athlete to feel overwhelmed, not good enough, anxious and prompt excessive worry and rumination.

Are there different issues when it comes to males/females with anxiety?

It is widely established through research that female athletes are more prone to feeling anxious than male athletes. Female athletes tend to present with higher levels for concentration disruption, which means that they may ruminate about irrelevant thoughts and this can distract the athlete because this ruminating can expend the mental resources that they could use to execute the sporting task. Female athletes also present with higher levels of somatic anxiety. Somatic anxiety is anxiety that manifests physically, such as increased sweating, nausea, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, increased urination, dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach, and muscle tension.

How would anyone spot if anything is off with their athlete?

Experiencing low levels of anxiety before competition is common, such as feeling nervous and worried about their performance. Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life and part and parcel of playing sport to a degree. It’s also a natural emotional response that can help us prepare for challenges. It becomes a problem when there is no obvious reason for it, or when anxious feelings persist for more than a couple of weeks.

There are signs that coaches or parents can help identify and if they are experiencing more than one of the following, over a couple of weeks or longer, you may need some extra support. Common anxiety signs and symptoms include difficulty getting to and staying asleep; muscle tension and headaches; rapid heart rate and breathing; sweating or trembling; feeling nervous; restless or tense; having a sense of impending danger; panic or doom; having an increased heart rate; breathing rapidly (hyperventilation); trouble concentrating and having difficulty controlling worry are some of the signs. Link in with trusted websites such as the HSE, Aware, Mental Health Ireland, linking in with websites such as these, can lead you to be more informed which is essential in building that knowledge base.

What area would you like to see addressed more?

The area I would like to see addressed more is the stigma around mental health in sport. Over the last few decades, the attitudes towards mental health in sports has gotten better, which has resulted in more athletes coming forward and talking about their experience having mental health illnesses. One of the most significant barriers for athletes to seek help is stigma, other barriers are denial and lack of mental health literacy.

Mental health literacy is described as knowledge about mental health disorders that are associated with their recognition, management, and prevention. The general public are relatively poor at recognising the symptoms of mental health illness. Mental health literacy is crucial as it is closely related to help-seeking behaviour and mental health outcomes. You cannot seek and get help for something you are not aware of and that stops you from seeking support.

Furthermore, a lack of understanding about mental health can lead to discrimination and stigma toward those living with mental health issues. Mental health literacy is a vital empowerment tool, as it helps people better understand their own mental health and most importantly enhances help-seeking.