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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.’

Tour de France in 2021 (photo: Shutterstock)

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.

Sport psychologist Yannick Balk talks with swimmers in the Sloterparkbad in Amsterdam (photo: NSP)

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.’

Simone Biles turning
Simone Biles spoke very openly about her depression and 'mental breeak'. Yannick calls it very important how she showed her vulnerability (photo: Shutterstock)

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 help

Around 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.’

Tips for healthy performance

Balk also has a few tips for dealing with stress if you need to achieve good performance:

  1. Write down your experiences and insights, what went well and what didn’t. This will enable you to make a better connection between objective data such as your heartbeat and the distance you ran and how you actually felt. This is a very simple way of developing yourself mentally, which, due to all the apps and technology, we tend to forget.
  2. Regard your mental strength as part of your sport. Don’t just set physical goals for yourself, but mental goals as well, such as focusing for longer. Then, consider how you can develop these mental skills.
  3. Habits or rituals can be useful and practical. Many athletes do this, such as always following the same pre-game ritual. This lets you focus better and it often generates self-confidence. But rituals should still be practicable and not drift into superstition or obsession. Be careful not to make your performance dependent on external factors.

Viewing tips

And to conclude a few viewing tips:

Mardy Fisch on his knees
Screenshot documentary (Netflix)

Untold: Breaking Point

Documentary 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 Osaka hits the ball
Screenshot documentary (Netflix)

Naomi Osaka

This 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.

Portrait picture of Michael Phelps
Screenshot documentary (HBO Sports)

The weight of gold

This 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.

Dr. Y.A. (Yannick) Balk

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Work and Organizational Psychology