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People: Daniel Eisenberg on the link between mental health and sporting performance

Associate professor, University of Michigan School of Public Health

Published in Sports Management Nov Dec 2016 issue 128
Daniel Eisenberg
Daniel Eisenberg

A person’s performance in sport is related to many factors. One important factor that can often be overlooked is mental health.

Research from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health (SPH) shows that one in three college students experiences significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, yet only about 30 per cent seek help. Of student athletes, just 10 per cent seek help.

Athletes Connected, the university’s multi-departmental athlete-focused mental health programme, aims to remedy this by helping athletes to understand the link between mental health and performance, and encouraging them to seek help.

Objective stats
Leading the research unit of this programme is Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the SPH. Eisenberg’s latest research aims to investigate how mental health symptoms, particularly depression and anxiety, relate to athletic performance.

“Athletes offer the opportunity to measure performance in a more objective way than the general population. For example, swimmers and runners have race times. Every sport has an objective statistic by which to measure performance,” he said.

Eisenberg and his team worked with 43 student athletes from a range of sports. The students were surveyed weekly over 12 weeks and also did twice-daily surveys for a two week period within this time.

While the results are yet to come in, Eisenberg is enthusiastic about their potential to help athletes, coaches and sports teams to recognise the role that mental health plays in sport and in our lives.

“One of our main goals is to help coaches and managers of sports teams. They are the leaders of athletic teams, and we hope this will help convince them that mental health is aligned with their goals of high performance and success. It is fundamental to our ability to function at our best.”

Staying positive
Eisenberg warned the results must be used carefully, so as not to contribute to negative stereotypes.

“We’ll emphasise a positive framing,” he assures. “We’ll emphasise that mental health is a continuum that’s relevant for everyone, rather than a binary concept of people with and without mental health problems. Nearly everyone has potential to improve where they are on that continuum, and potentially enhance their functioning and performance.”

This message is of huge importance to athletes, and Eisenberg hopes his research will contribute to an increased awareness of mental health in sports.

“I’d like to see mental health be a part of the everyday culture in sports, just like physical health is. It should be openly discussed and appreciated.”

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