Wimbledon, the Tour de France and the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022. Another summer of top-level sport. Yannick Balk, sport psychologist and ’Head of Mindset’ of the DSM cycling team, works to promote the mental health of athletes. ’Good performance is also a question of healthy performance. That as an athlete you’re not only physically strong, but mentally strong as well, so that you can keep this up for years. Especially because you’re often in the spotlight non-stop as an athlete.’
Many people’s hearts beat faster when athletes achieve a great performance. Even as a viewer you need to be able to deal mentally with stress, but as an athlete you naturally need to do so to a much greater degree.
In psychology, increasing attention is being given to performance pressure in sports and what effect this has on you in mental terms. A whole area of research has arisen from this: sports and performance psychology. We talked to sports psychologist Yannick Balk about his field of work and healthy performance, and he has some tips for you as well.
Healthy performance in the face of stress and pressure’Sport and performance psychology aims to help everyone who wants to achieve healthy and optimum performance in domains which involve a lot of stress and pressure’, explains Balk. ’Sport is a great example of this and one that appeals to the imagination. But it also applies to performing artists, surgeons and, for instance, police officers and ambulance staff. Actually, these domains are all very comparable to each other stresswise. The only thing is, after performing in a stressful situation, a member of an ambulance crew won’t find themselves standing on a podium with a trophy.’
Balk researches how professions like these deal with stress, individually and at the team level, before and after high-intensity phases and also how they prepare mentally for their task. ’We’re discovering more and more about this cycle and how you can train towards it. One issue to receive increasing attention is that good performance means healthy and sustainable performance, so that you don’t only perform well this year, but can also keep it up in the coming years.’
Many athletes have truly become a brand’Thirty years ago, an athlete could really take a break from sports for part of the year. But now, due in part to the role of social media and sponsor obligations, the responsibilities have grown so much that you’re actually involved in your sport day in, day out’, observes Balk. He says that many athletes have truly become a brand and a figurehead, with plenty of expectations attached to this. ’Many athletes struggle with long-term motivation and their identity. We could see this happen to racing cyclist Tom Dumoulin and gymnast Simone Biles, for instance, who have been very open about their experiences here.’
Athletes less inclined to seek helpAround 10 to 30 per cent of the athlete community struggles with mental health. This ranges from anxiety and depression to addiction. ’This percentage is the same among the general population’, says Balk. In his view, we sometimes practically view athletes as superheroes, who are supposedly immune to all kinds of pressure and stress. ’But in the end, they’re just normal people like you and me.’
However, athletes are less inclined to seek help. According to Balk, this is due to the stigma of the superhero who’s supposed to be immune to stress. ’It’s quickly perceived as weakness.’ He says this is even harder for athletes who perform in groups, because all kinds of team interests play a role here too. ’But showing your vulnerability is something we actually need to start seeing as a strength.’
Balk is working to make mental resilience not only a point for attention when things go wrong, but instead to become part of performance and training in general. ’This is a slow process, but I hope that sport psychology will be more established in around five years from now.’
Head of Mindset at Team DSM Balk himself works at Dutch cycling team DSM. Here, his role is ’Head of Mindset’, he develops and supports cyclists at the mental level. ’Right now, they’ve got a whole team in the Tour de France. Balk gives workshops and conducts individual discussions with cyclists about all kinds of themes. ’Naturally, it’s great that I can work both at the university and also in the professional field like this. I learn a lot this way, and I hope they do too.’
Tips for healthy performanceBalk also has a few tips for dealing with stress if you need to achieve good performance:
Viewing tipsAnd to conclude a few viewing tips:
Untold: Breaking PointDocumentary about American tennis player Mardy Fisch, who faced mental problems. ’This film shows how hard he had to work in order to reach the top, and once he got there how he struggled with tensions and fears. He is very open about his experiences and the documentary provides some great insights into this issue.’
Naomi OsakaThis mini-series gives an intimate insight into the life of Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who had to quit the French Open for reasons of mental health. The series follows her as she explores her cultural background and focuses on her diverse identity as tennis champion and rising leader.
The weight of goldThis film is about American swimmer Michael Phelps, who fell into a deep depression after his success at the 2016 Olympic Games. In the documentary, Phelps explores the devastating mental effect of this success. He shares his own experiences and also interviews other famous athletes.
Too Tired to Switch Off? How Post-Training Physical Fatigue Impairs Mental Recovery Through Increased WorryIn this scientific article, Balk and colleagues discuss mental detachment: the ability of athletes to distance themselves from the cognitive and emotional demands made of them by sport. This is an important process for physical and mental recovery, but it is negatively influenced by fatigue after training and competition. By means of a daily diary study, Balk and colleagues researched the role played in this process by rumination and worry. To this end, thirty-nine Dutch elite athletes filled out a daily questionnaire. Daily physical fatigue turned out to be positively associated with sport-related rumination and worry during recovery, while daily vigour was negatively associated with this. These findings indicate that physical fatigue in particular can also inhibit the mental recovery process.
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Programme group Work and Organizational Psychology