Psychological Pressure for Elite Athletes


Nearly twenty years on from her losing final in the 200m butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Susie O’Neill, one of Australian swimming’s, indeed sport’s, superheroes, was recently filmed watching footage of the race for the first time.

O’Neill watched the race in tears and later said, “When I look at that, I just see failure. It’s weird, hey. In my head I know that’s not real….”

When we consider the impacts of these events on grown men and women who have retired from their sport, decades on from the incidents the psychological pressure on elite athletes becomes wildly apparent. What, then, for younger athletes in their prime and currently competing?

For some, the pressure is a driver for performance. It lifts them to better and better outcomes – look only at rugby league maestro Cameron Smith, or tennis ace Roger Federer. For others it becomes far too much and both performance and personal problems emerge – Australian swimming’s Stilnox scandal for example, or Bernard Tomic’s failure to live up to his enormous talent.

Psychological pressure on athletes can be categorised into three types: competitive, organisational and personal.

Competitive stressors relate directly to what is happening during training or competition. They include injury, returning from injury, pressures heading into competition, performance pressures during competition, perceptions about competitors, competition for a spot and form or technique issues.

Organisational stressors relate to the pressure on individuals or team as a consequence of their immediate and broader organisational environment. It is hard to imagine, for example, that the turmoil in Australian Rugby didn’t have a big influence on the Wallabies’ failure to fire in the recent Rugby World Cup in Japan. Organisational stressors include training issues, interpersonal conflict with teammates or coaches, perceived lack of support from organisation or travel and accommodation issues.

Personal stressors derive from personal events in an athlete’s life. They could include lifestyle issues or changes (such as substance abuse or sleep problems), financial issues, traumatic life events or outside commitments such as family or study.

These psychological stressors can influence everything from competition performance and cognitive function, to recovery and even injury rates.

Studies show that psychological stress can lead to slower rates of strength recovery and increased likelihood of serious injury to athletes.

An article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, for example, found that injury rates were correlated with athletes’ mood and stress levels, measuring mood dimensions such as anger, confusion, fatigue, tension and depression.

A blog article by the same organisation notes that psychological issues for elite athletes can be suppressed due to the potential stigma associated with speaking out – an issue that is being increasingly well addressed in Australian sport, at least.

Elite sport and its athletes are driven by competition and results. Athletes continue to push themselves to new limits, seemingly impossible records get broken. But the pressure that comes with this can be excruciating and detrimental for athlete’s mental health. It is true that each athlete is different and the way they respond to the pressure of elite performance is different. The challenge for coaches and administrators is to find the Goldilocks zone for each individual between pressure enhanced performance or pressure driven failure and the potential for mental illness that can follow.