Mr Edd Thorogood, Head of the High Performance Athletics Programme at Eltham College spoke to us about mental health in sport.  Is it mind over matter – or mind over everything else!

If I think back to my late teens, sadly over 20 years ago now, the concept of sports psychology was very new. Of course, there was a fair amount around about the mindset of elite sports men and women, but the reality was that you were either ‘mentally tough’ or not. There was little explanation as to why that may be, or any middle ground for that matter.  The expectation was that if you were performing at a good or top level, an elite mindset came hand in hand.  However, over the last 20 years, understanding of athletes’ mentality and the factors that may affect their ability to perform has evolved, together with a worldwide acceptance that the human brain is a great deal more fragile than first thought and that whether a top athlete or mere mortal, it really is “ok not to be ok”.

Nearly every elite sporting establishment now features a host of sports psychologists whose roles will range from building a team ethos and culture through to developing individual psychological profiles. At Eltham College, we are working hard to provide our young athletes with the tools they need to prepare them to perform both physically and mentally, but also to give them avenues to be able to discuss their mental state. Students should feel comfortable and encouraged to discuss with mentors and coaches about how their everyday lives are affecting their sporting mentality and, from our side of things as coaches, an acceptance that ‘one size does not fit all’. It is vitally important to us that we acknowledge that each individual student will have different triggers, different back grounds and different stresses that will undoubtedly have a positive or negative effect on their mental state and will naturally then have an effect on their performance.

In 2004, I was lucky enough to not only to study under the eye of lead Sport Psychologist, Dr Sheldon Hanton, but also to work with elite sports men and women [say where?] to understand the effects of anxiety on performance. What became clear was that it was not simply performance anxiety that effected their mental state, but also their own situational anxiety that formed their overall personal confidence at the point of high-level performance.  What was initially designed to be a journal based around the effects of performance anxiety, quickly became a much bigger study that delved into the mind of athletes. Most importantly, it also understood them as individuals and who they are.

The leaders fostering our own sporting culture at Eltham are essential to the individual athlete now, more than ever. We are making clear progress in understanding our students better – both mentally as well as physically. We now have exceptionally close links with the Foxbury Centre Wellbeing and Nursing team, heads of year, form tutors, as well as parents and the students themselves.

We believe all members of our community should be encouraged to talk [about…?] to ensure the best environment and programme for each student. Through these links, we are making great strides to ensure that every student is given the opportunity to perform at the best level at which they are capable. The walls and barriers have been broken down to the extent that we are acutely aware of the importance of this approach.  That said, this evolution is a journey and we are not yet at the destination! We will continue to offer support to students as and when they need it.

Much like every aspect of Eltham College life, we wish to see our students flourish and become the very best version of themselves. Whilst understanding the individual, it is also essential for us to instil the belief in students that they can perform to their best, no matter what may be going on for them both within and outside the sporting world.

Skill and ability are only two aspects of sporting performance that allow adolescents to express themselves: having the right mindset and sufficient confidence are equally vital ingredients to the overall outlay of physical and emotional effort that combines to produce a top-level performance. It is our desire to empower students to play and train in an environment that ensures a ‘no fear’ culture and that embraces the goal of allowing every student to be the very best version of themselves.

No matter what it may be, we are very open about the fact that there are multiple factors that can affect students’ mentality towards their sporting performance. Within our culture of high performance, development and introduction to sport we embrace the understanding that every student is different and encourage those conversations that help us best understand where they are and what is best for them.

There may have been a time that there was an expectation that the mind would, or should, overcome the matter at hand, but not anymore. The mind is the most important aspect of performance, and the mental wellbeing of our athletes is the key to them being able to perform at the very best level they can, and we are committed to ensuring we understand each individual as best we possibly can.

Taking time to talk to staff, be that through a parent or tutor or directly, to help us understand the factors that may be affecting your performance at an individual or team level, is vital to us to understanding every student and giving them the chance to flourish.

Sports Psychology & mental health is just as important as the physical element of sport. Understanding individuals and their needs is imperative to being able to get the very best out of athletes. It is a two-way street whereby staff and coaches can help if they are able to understand more fully the mental state and factors that could affect performance both positively and negatively to provide us all with the best chance of success on an individual and collective basis.

Mr Edd Thorogood

Head of HPAP, Eltham College