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From Mindset to Success: Overcoming Mental Barriers for Student-Athletes

Introduction

Background information on student-athletes and mental health

Sports do not make student-athletes immune to mental health challenges. In fact, it might make them even more vulnerable. The pressure to perform in their games, keep up with academic and social life, and plan for the future leaves student-athletes feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious.

Sports are considered to be very good for one’s mental health — yet this doesn’t make student-athletes immune to mental health challenges. In fact, performing in a highly competitive environment might make some even more vulnerable to mental struggles. Many student-athletes, in particular, are familiar with feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious.

Mental health in student-athletes is a topic that gained more attention in the last few years. In an NCAA study, 30% of surveyed athletes reported feeling extremely overwhelmed, with nearly 25% also reporting mental exhaustion as a result of perceived pressure. Depression is also a common condition for many student-athletes: 31% of male and 48% of female college athletes reported feeling depressed at some point in their careers.

Unfortunately, these worrying figures don’t make student-athletes more motivated to seek support. Only half of sports participants (48% women and 46% men respectively) have sought the help of a mental health professional. One reason might be the perceived stigma of mental illness, which makes people feel stigmatized for how they’re feeling.

What is the difference between Mental Health & Mental Illness?

Before we dig deeper into the topic of mental barriers, let’s talk about mental health for a bit. Some people cannot tell the difference between mental health and mental illness.
If this is also the case for you, we hope that the following sentences will help clarify the matter.

Firstly, mental health is a general state of mind: it refers to how you’re generally feeling. In contrast, mental illness is a condition that affects how someone thinks, behaves, and feels in the longer term. Another thing that differentiates mental illness from mental health is that the former also occurs outside someone’s control. It often shows up in the form of ‘symptoms’ (such as sadness and low energy) that are rooted in complex biological and psychological changes that take place in someone’s brain.

Overview of the paper

Since addressing mental health is a key part of overcoming your mental barriers, this article aims to encompass detailed information on both aspects. In the following paragraphs, you will find some useful information that will help you understand and recognize the most common mental barriers to performance. We hope this will answer many of your questions related to how to overcome mental barriers.

Besides, you can also read some information that will help your student-athlete’s mental health unlock their maximum potential.

Understanding Mental Barriers for Student-Athletes

Definition and explanation of mental barriers

Mental barriers take different forms — which is why there is no precise psychological barriers definition. Oftentimes, they appear as self-imposed beliefs that restrict us from growing and negatively impact our perception of ourselves and our abilities.

If we focus on these thoughts, they can prevent us from moving forward. For instance, a mental barrier may keep you from writing a book, taking a promotion, or pursuing a relationship. Mental barriers can also be called emotional or psychological barriers, and they can manifest in our thoughts, opinions, feelings, or attitudes toward others. They’re often driven by fear, such as fear of being judged, fear of failing, of the unknown, etc. More mental barriers examples can be found by examining your own life and seeing what stops you from taking the next step in your career or personal relationships.

Types of mental barriers faced by student-athletes

The performance-driven nature of sports makes student-athletes more vulnerable to mental barriers than other people. For this reason, they may need a lot more guidance and coaching to get in the right mindset and overcome mental barriers to performance.

Many student-athletes are held back by mental blocks like perfectionism, overthinking, lack of self-confidence, and stress. To overcome and completely eliminate mental barriers, they don’t just general advice — they need someone to coach them through those struggles and show them a concrete plan on how to move towards the best version of themselves.

student athlete snowboarding off a big jump

Factors that contribute to mental barriers for student-athletes

Before mapping an action plan on how to get past mental barriers, coaches need to understand where these issues come from. In many cases, the explanation for psychological barriers comes down to the social, academic, and performance pressure exercised upon student-athletes.

Student-athletes may feel the need to display the illusion of a perfectly managed life – sports, career, social, life, and all. But that’s highly unrealistic even for a mature adult – let alone a teenager who still figures their life out.

Some other factors that contribute to mental barriers in student-athletes are certain events in their upbringing (such as trauma, emotional memories, or abuse), external criticism, or an extremely competitive environment.

When a student-athlete has a highly painful memory from the past – such as being bullied in school – they will feel that they’re not good enough to pursue their dreams. For this reason, addressing the factors that lead to mental barriers is the first step in someone’s personal growth.

The impact of mental barriers on student-athletes

Removing psychological blocks to performance is essential for anyone who wants to grow and take their life or performance to the next level. Fortunately, there is a lot of literature on mental barriers in sports which allows coaches to implement science-based tools for their students. This literature also recognizes how psychological barriers impact performance and mental health.

Many articles describe how unaddressed fears of failure, injury, and uncertainty can have negative consequences on the athlete’s life. More importantly, these fears can severely impact their mental health or even lead to psychiatric conditions. For example, emotional psychological barriers can lead to depression and anxiety, as they make the athlete feel not good enough and worried about how they will perform.

Besides, someone who performs with their mental barriers in mind will experience less enjoyment of the game, which in turn leads to poorer performance and overthinking. The impact of those barriers on the student-athlete’s mental health and performance isn’t negligible – it’s something that should be prioritized as much as training itself.

Common Mental Barriers Faced by Student-Athletes

So far, this article presented a general overview of mental barriers in athletics. Hopefully, by now, you have a better idea of how to identify and recognize those barriers in your student-athlete. However, as is often the case, knowing about the existence of a problem isn’t sufficient to address its root cause. It also helps to know where mental barriers come from and how they specifically manifest. Since there are many types of mental barriers, the approach taken to solve them should also be different. The following paragraphs will describe each mental barrier in sports in greater detail, so you know what tools to use and when.

Student athlete practices the butterfly swim in pool

Performance anxiety

Another mental barrier to success is performance anxiety. Almost all athletes deal with it at some point in their careers. On one hand, feeling nervous about an upcoming performance is normal and nothing to worry about. However, when this impacts performance and mental health, or when it becomes uncontrollable, it should be treated with the utmost importance.

The pressure to perform at a high level in both academics and sports can cause feelings of fear and self-doubt, leading to decreased confidence and a decline in performance. The fear of failure or disappointing others can also contribute to performance anxiety, causing student-athletes to become overly stressed and anxious. For this reason, knowing how to manage and control performance anxiety is an essential part of overcoming mental obstacles in sports.

Self-doubt and negative self-talk

Everyone has self-doubt issues. From time to time, we all have that inner critic popping up out of nowhere and telling us we’re not good enough. But for a student-athlete who has to show their best, dealing with negative self-talk can make or break their performance. Self-doubt is not just a performance issue: it is also a barrier to mental health, as it can spiral someone into anxiety or depression.

But the effects of negative self-talk go even deeper. They can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, leading to a decline in confidence and performance. Because of them, a student-athlete will feel as if they will never achieve their goals or become the athlete they want to become.
One thing to know in order to overcome this mental barrier is that developing a positive self-image can act as an antidote to negative self-talk and self-doubt. Building self-esteem and confidence through positive affirmations, setting achievable goals, and focusing on strengths can help student-athletes overcome psychological barriers to success.

Anxiety and stress

Anxiety and stress are common mental barriers that many student-athletes face. The pressure to excel in both academics and sports can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety, which can negatively impact their performance. Student-athletes may feel overwhelmed by the demands placed on them, leading to feelings of fear and self-doubt. High levels of stress and anxiety can also impact their physical health, leading to a decline in performance or injury.

Managing stress and anxiety isn’t just an option for student athletes. It is an essential part of their mental and physical health. Fortunately, there are now many techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation exercises that can help student-athletes manage their stress levels and improve their mental well-being. Breaking through this barrier can be achieved with the right support from coaches, counselors, or parents, who can provide tools for stress management while promoting a healthy balance between academics and sports.

Depression and loneliness

Having to perform great at all times is exhausting. It leads student-athletes to feel as if they always have to prove themselves, which is why part of overcoming mental barriers should be addressing symptoms of exhaustion and overwhelm, which can be a sign of depression. This mental health condition can cause feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and low energy, making it difficult for student-athletes to find motivation or enjoyment in their sport.

Depression and loneliness are common among college athletes, especially among those who do not have an active social life or close friendships to share their struggles with. For example, if you are the only student-athlete in your class, you will feel as if no one understands and can relate to what you are going through. As a result of this, you feel isolated and very alone in your struggles. For this reason, parents and coaches of student-athletes should pay attention to those who show symptoms of depression or spend a lot of time on their own. When left untreated, depression can become chronic, and is more difficult to treat and manage.

Fear of failure or success

Although many would find it difficult to understand why an athlete would be afraid of succeeding, fear of success is just as real as any other fear. Succeeding once would mean, for a student-athlete, that they would raise their own performance bar, which would then have to live up to in the future. Likewise, success comes with pressure and expectations from others: for example, parents and coaches would perceive the student-athlete as someone who is capable of great things, and living up to those standards could feel exhausting for anyone.

But there are other reasons why someone would be afraid of succeeding. One cause is the potential for identity loss. If a student-athlete is not used to feeling successful, achieving a great milestone would mean that they could lose their old identity of an unsuccessful person. Breaking the mental barrier imposed by the fear of success should, therefore, address the underlying reasons behind what success could mean for the student-athlete. It can also be overcome by addressing the behaviors that occur as a result of the fear of success, such as self-sabotage, procrastination, and avoidance of challenging situations. When both the causes and the symptoms of this fear are addressed, mental health professionals and coaches can unlock the limitations of mental barriers for student-athletes.

Psychological attitudinal barriers

So far, we mentioned several common barriers that stop student-athletes from performing at their best, such as negative self-talk, fear of failure and success, and perfectionism. These limitations can be identified as psychological attitudinal barriers, which is also an appropriate mental barrier definition explained in simple terms. 

The term ‘psychological’ implies that the barrier comes from the athlete’s way of thinking about their sport. It has nothing to do with their actual skills, natural abilities, or physical stamina and endurance. Mental barriers cannot be overcome with more physical training and skills coaching — they are a distinct issue that should be treated separately from the athlete’s preparation and training. Very often, those psychological attitudinal barriers diminish once the student-athlete adopts a growth mindset and approaches every challenge as an opportunity to progress. All the above-mentioned mental barriers (mental health issues, performance anxiety, self-doubt, negative self-talk, and fear of failure) are unavoidable, but not impossible to work with. 

Perfectionism

Psychological barriers in sports do not always show up in a negative way. Sometimes, they appear as positive personality traits, such as perfectionism. Wanting to do things the right way and to perform at your best isn’t harmful in itself, but it can become one of those mental barriers to exercise when taken to the extreme.

One such mental barrier that affects student-athletes is perfectionism. It can manifest as a relentless drive to achieve flawless performance and an intense fear of failure, which can have negative impacts on their mental health and athletic performance. Perfectionistic student-athletes set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves, are highly critical of their performance, and have a predominantly negative self-talk. Because they are afraid of failure, they often avoid taking risks, which impedes their growth and learning process. In this respect, perfectionism becomes a mental barrier to learning and developing one’s skills.

Perfectionism in student-athletes can be overcome by developing a growth mindset and practicing regular self-compassion. It also helps to recognize that setbacks and failures are a normal part of the learning process and use them as opportunities for growth and improvement. Instead of setting unrealistic goals — which are more likely to end up in failure, student-athletes should instead focus on the process rather than the outcome, and recognize their strengths and coping strategies. A positive inner talk is a great antidote to that critical and perfectionistic voice, which is never satisfied with one’s performance and progress.

 

Psychological barriers in sports

In sports, psychological barriers can affect performance and lead to low self-esteem and confidence. But they can also manifest in physical symptoms, especially under stressful situations. 

The most common ones include:

  • Pre-competition jitteriness
  • Nervousness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating and nausea
  • Digestive issues 

For those who want to know how to break mental barriers, the answer lies in continuous self-development. Working on yourself, as a student-athlete is just as important as attending your training sessions. The scope of your personal development is to activate your inner power and resources and remove any obstacles from the way of your potential. This way, you’ll be able to perform at your maximum capacity. 

Impact of Mental Barriers on Student-Athletes

Unfortunately, psychological barriers do not just affect sports performance. When left unaddressed, they can affect the student-athletes’ mental health, academic results, social life, and relationship with themselves. Mental barriers stand in the way of their ability to fully enjoy their life and actualize their potential. We can conceptualize them as a prison that holds them someone trapped in fears and negative self-talk while forcing them to miss out on many opportunities for growth. When someone is locked into the prison of their minds, life will happen to them, instead of working for them.
The role of coaching and personal development is to free the student-athlete from this inner prison created by their fears. But before we dive deeper into how to actually do that, we’ll go through some details of how mental barriers impact various aspects of the student-athlete’s life.

Academic performance

Collegiate athletes have two major roles they must balance as part of their commitment to a university: being a college student and an athlete. Therefore, they have to be thriving athletes while also doing well at school. As you can imagine, this doesn’t come without a cost for many student-athletes. While the pressure to balance the two commitments is a lot on its own, adding mental barriers into equations makes the issue even more difficult. 

The impact of mental barriers on academic performance isn’t negligible. Some students might feel unable to switch between sports and school and find themselves in a state of chronic stress. Not feeling confident in oneself can lead someone to doubt their ability to cope with that stress, and may, as a result of this, develop more serious issues like anxiety, depression, or burnout. Since lack of confidence is one of the most common mental barriers for athletes, many of them will struggle to believe in their abilities to succeed at school while pursuing their favorite sport. As a result of this, their academic performance will suffer. This will trigger a vicious cycle where poor results reinforce the student-athlete’s belief that they aren’t good enough to excel in multiple areas of their lives.

Athletic performance

Not surprisingly, athletic performance suffers a lot when an athlete is trapped in their own personal mental barriers. If their inner dialogue is mainly composed of self-blame, self-doubt, and fear of failure, student-athletes will have a difficult time bringing out the best version of themselves on the field.

According to some schools of psychotherapy, there is a strong link between someone’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If a student-athlete thinks that “I’m not able to compete against this adversary”, on an emotional level, they will feel worthless and inferior. Their behavior will be focused on turning those assumptions into reality. More specifically, they will behave in a way that proves to them that they indeed aren’t able to compete against their adversary.

In this sense, mental barriers become a self-fulfilling prophecy in athletics. They are limiting thoughts that don’t just become the student-athlete’s living reality, but also keep them from changing it. Therefore, athletic performance is perhaps the area most impacted by psychological barriers.

Physical health

Mental barriers affect physical health because they create a lot of stress. When you doubt yourself and are afraid of failure, every challenge becomes more stressful because you do not think you are able to face it. Because of this contact state of stress, the body becomes more vulnerable to various health conditions. 

When someone is under stress, their bodies mobilize basic physiological functions by creating short-term changes such as increases in hormonal levels, blood flow, cardiac output, blood sugar levels, and pupil dilation. Once the stress factor disappears, all these functions return to their normal resting state. However, when the stress factor gets prolonged and becomes chronic, the body’s functions become dysregulated, increasing the individual’s risk of developing metabolic or mental health disorders. 

The effect of mental barriers on physical health includes increased inflammation in the body, increased risk of digestive issues, decreased immune system, and many other isolated health issues. Other biological and physiological signs include muscle tension, increased heart rate, indigestion, stomach spasms, pain, and headaches. 

Mental Health and Well-Being

The effects of mental barriers on the mental well-being of the student-athlete are not negligible. Common manifestations include anxiety, disturbances in sleep, changes in behavior, and lower performance. Although small doses of stress can lead to motivation and achievement, overwhelming amounts of stress become harmful to the athlete.

Mental health issues themselves are an obstacle to seeking support for mental barriers. When someone feels depressed or anxious, they are less motivated to seek help, because these conditions – depression in particular – is marked by a loss of drive and motivation to succeed. In this sense, mental barriers activate a vicious cycle of poor mental health, where mental health barriers to treatment keep the student-athlete in the same place of vulnerability and helplessness.

Student-athletes who face stronger psychological barriers are at a higher risk of mental health disorders, such as clinical depression, substance abuse, and sleep disorders. Besides, mental barriers can cause student-athletes to have negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities, which can impact their self-esteem. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

Relationships with coaches, teammates, and peers

Very often, the impact of psychological barriers does not include the topic of relationships with others. Yet this is just as important as physical and mental health. Student-athletes need good relationships with coaches, teammates, peers, and colleagues to sustain good mental health. Likewise, they need the right type of social support to break through their psychological barriers. 

But, unfortunately, mental barriers themselves can limit someone’s ability to build healthy and supportive relationships. For example, student-athletes who think are not good enough will isolate themselves from their social group out of fear of being rejected or criticized. Similarly, someone whose main mental barrier is athletic identity will have a difficult time socializing with peers who are not athletes. Relating to yourself as an athlete only will not offer you the opportunity to discover other parts of yourself and hobbies that you might enjoy outside athletics. 

Mental barriers impact social relationships because they do not allow student-athletes to show up as who they are around people. Besides, psychological barriers can also cause communication problems between student-athletes and others. They may have trouble expressing themselves or understanding others, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. Some student-athletes will also have a difficult time forming intimate relationships. They may struggle with trust, vulnerability, and emotional intimacy, which can make it difficult to form meaningful connections with romantic partners.

 Because of this, they will often struggle with issues such as:

  • Isolation
  • Loneliness
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Exclusion
  • Bullying 

When it comes to the relationship with parents and coaches, athletes with mental barriers will struggle to accept support and get into frequent conflicts. More specifically, mental barriers can lead to strained relationships between student-athletes and their coaches. If student-athletes feel like they are not meeting expectations or are not being understood, they may become frustrated or resentful towards their coaches.

Finally, mental barriers can lead student-athletes to feel socially isolated and left out. They may feel like they don’t fit in or belong, leading to feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Because of this, it is essential for student-athletes to seek support from mental health professionals and to communicate openly with their coaches, peers, and family members to overcome mental barriers and maintain healthy relationships.

Student athlete getting help from his coach on a upcoming play

Career prospects

Psychological barriers in sports affect, without a doubt, athletic performance. But their impact often spreads outside the playing field. For those student-athletes who do not aim to pursue a professional sports career, mental barriers will become a block to a professional career choice.
For example, if a student’s main mental barrier is a lack of confidence, they will miss out on important opportunities simply because they don’t think they are good enough to succeed. Similarly, a lack of motivation leads student-athletes to lose interest in their sport or feel like they are not capable of achieving their goals, which can impact their commitment to training and competing.

But a major way in which psychological barriers affect career choices is by making the transition out of a sport more difficult. If a student-athlete is struggling with mental health issues or has a negative self-image, they will have a difficult time finding meaning or purpose in their post-sport life. Instead of offering themselves a chance to see which hobbies and interests could lead them to a fulfilling career, student-athletes with unaddressed mental barriers will sabotage themselves and remain stuck in a negative mindset. When all you see are limitations and blocks, success and fulfillment become illusory things. Mental barriers are a negative filter that leads someone to see obstacles instead of opportunities.

Barriers to Addressing Mental Health for Student-Athletes

Once someone knows what their mental barriers to success are, half of the issue is already solved. In theory, the only aspect left to solve is the mental barrier itself. But, unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Although it sounds counterintuitive, people are not always open to professional support. For them to remove a mental obstacle, they first have to admit that they need and want support. 

In many cases, the first step in removing psychological obstacles is finding out whether someone has any mental health barriers to treatment, coaching, and support. In other words, this means figuring out if someone’s mental health is in itself an obstacle to working with those mental barriers. For example, psychological issues like depression or anxiety can make student-athletes less likely to get help, particularly because those issues have a lot of stigmas attached to them. Besides, such conditions also entail a loss of motivation and drive, which is why people who suffer from them are less eager to seek support. 

If you were wondering what are barriers of mental health that stop student-athletes from performing at their best, the following paragraphs will clarify this question for you

Student athlete breaking mental barriers by rock climbing steep cliff

Barriers found in mental health

Besides these barriers, which are often created by the student-athlete’s external circumstances or their fears, there are other psychological barriers imposed by mental health itself. These refer to the consequences of living with a mental health condition. 

If we look at depression, which is a disorder that severely affects behavior and thinking patterns, we will see that it comes with many negative consequences. Some widely known signs of depression are loss of motivation and interest in things that someone used to enjoy. Depression also causes people to isolate, change their appetite, habits, and sleep behaviors. As a result of this, a depressed student-athlete will lack the mental and physical energy they need to seek support and remain engaged in active psychological treatment. 

Many other mental health issues constitute a mental barrier to treatment and support in themselves. For example, addiction causes people to deny that they have a problem. It also leads them to lie, manipulate, and hide from their loved ones. As a result, their access to mental health support is impaired. Addiction affects someone’s ability to think clearly and make good decisions, which is why many who suffer from this condition will not even admit to having a problem in the first place. 

Mental health barriers to treatment

If a student-athlete wants to know how to remove their mental barriers, the first thing they should look at is their mental health. No psychological barrier improves by itself without addressing mental health first. For this reason, coaches and parents who support student-athletes should first aim to remove any mental barrier to treatment first. 

Some potential obstacles that prevent student-athletes from seeking the right mental health support are:

  • Stigma: This refers to feeling ashamed of one’s mental health condition. It leads student-athletes to believe that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness or failure, which can prevent them from reaching out for help.
  • Time constraints: Student-athletes may have limited time available for mental health treatment due to their busy training and competition schedules. They may feel that they cannot take time away from their sport to attend therapy sessions or appointments. As a result, they will delay or avoid seeking help for their mental health, which will continue to be a mental barrier to success and performance. 
  • Lack of access: Some student-athletes may not have access to mental health services due to financial or logistical barriers. They may not have health insurance or may live in areas with limited mental health resources. Understandably, their access to support will be limited, in which case, coaches, teachers, and parents should find solutions to overcome this obstacle. 
  • Fear of losing eligibility: Student-athletes may also fear that seeking mental health treatment could negatively impact their eligibility to compete. They may worry that their coaches or teammates will view them differently or that they will lose their spot on the team.

Lack of trust: Finally, some student-athletes may struggle to trust mental health professionals. They may feel that therapists or counselors do not understand the unique pressures and experiences of being an athlete and may be hesitant to open up.

Psychological barriers that do not include mental barriers

For many, the meaning of psychological barriers overlaps with the mental barriers meaning. But other psychological obstacles do not necessarily fall under this definition. So far, we have discussed mental barriers such as lack of confidence, lack of motivation, and stress. But other barriers affect athletic performance and are worth mentioning. 

One such psychological barrier that does not include mental barriers is attitude.

This is a cognitive inclination that determines how someone approaches a challenge. In sports, attitude is essential. It has either a negative or positive impact on their performance. When a student athlete is challenged, they may react emotionally instead of remaining focused on the game. A positive attitude held by the player, on the other hand, can be effective in keeping the student-athlete motivated throughout the game. 

Another psychological barrier that we haven’t mentioned so far is overconfidence. This can have both positive and negative effects on student-athlete performance. On the one hand, a certain level of confidence can help boost motivation, enhance performance, and promote a positive mindset. However, when overconfidence becomes excessive, it can have negative consequences.

For example, an overconfident student-athlete may underestimate the difficulty of a task or overestimate their abilities, leading them to take unnecessary risks or make careless mistakes. This can lead to poor performance or even injury. Additionally, overconfidence can lead to complacency, where the student-athlete feels that they do not need to put in as much effort or preparation as they actually do.

Overconfidence can also lead to a lack of receptivity to feedback and constructive criticism. If a student-athlete believes they are already performing at a high level, they may not be open to feedback from coaches or teammates that could help them improve their skills or technique. This can hinder their development and ultimately limit their potential.

Mental health barriers to exercise

Mental health is often a huge barrier to exercise. It leads people to feel demotivated, apathetic, and self-conscious. All these together can make it challenging for someone to get to the gym or even outside the house for an exercise session. 

Unfortunately, student-athletes are no exception — even if exercising comes totally naturally to them. But unlike non-athletes who only need exercise for their mental and physical health, student-athletes rely on it to develop their skills, physical stamina, and get better at their sport. If they want to perform better, they must train and exercise — and this isn’t something optional for them. 

When a student-athlete struggles with mental health issues, they have to work harder to motivate themselves to train than a healthy athlete. Perhaps they feel like they have no energy at all; or their sleep routine and appetite are impaired, leaving them feeling lethargic and depleted of physical strength. Similarly, a mental health condition makes someone feel very self-conscious about their body, in which case they will avoid training in public places or with other people. 

Many mental health barriers to exercise will be specific to the condition itself. For individuals with anxiety, the thought of exercising in a public space or being around others while exercising can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. This can prevent them from participating in exercise programs or going to the gym. Individuals who have experienced trauma may find that exercise triggers symptoms of anxiety or PTSD. This can make it difficult for them to engage in exercise, particularly if they associate certain types of exercise or environments with their trauma.

Student athlete stressing out and grabbing a fence

Challenges of seeking mental health care for student-athletes

If you’re one of those motivated people and want to break your mental barriers as soon as possible, see if there are mental health challenges that should be addressed first. Likewise, if you are offering support to a student-athlete, help them become aware of what holds them back from seeking mental health support. 

In many cases, student-athletes are afraid of seeking help because they are afraid of being perceived as weak. Since they are often performing in a competitive environment where everyone gets rewarded for being strong and mentally tough, student-athletes will find it difficult to show their vulnerable side and admit that they’re struggling. Therefore, one important issue to work on is helping your student understand that seeking support does not make someone weak. Instead, it makes them responsible and mature. 

A different challenge to getting mental support is the student-athlete’s fear of the unknown. Psychological treatment is a new and unpredictable journey: someone who has never tried it before doesn’t know what to expect or how to conduct themselves. Luckily, this challenge diminishes once they get in contact with a mental health professional. Therapists and psychologists are trained to reduce the client’s worry over the process. They know how to make them feel safe, seen, and understood so that their fear of uncertainty is reduced.

Overcoming Mental Barriers for Student-Athletes

Student-athletes can face various psychological barriers that can hinder their performance and overall well-being. These barriers can include anxiety, depression, negative self-talk, and lack of confidence. To overcome these mental barriers, there are several psychological barrier solutions that student-athletes can implement. The following paragraphs will focus provide ideas that can help student-athletes push through their mental barriers.

Strategies for breaking mental barriers

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to how to get over mental barriers, the research literature shows some insights that might be immensely helpful to student-athletes. An effective intervention plan for psychological barriers to performance should include:

  • Addressing stigma around mental 
  • Improving mental health literacy (e.g. educating student-athlete to recognize and identify symptoms of mental distress)
  • Improving access to mental health providers
  • Providing tools and knowledge for overcoming one’s personal barriers. 

As you can see, the first elements of this plan are related to mental health. That’s because mental health is a core component of performance, and one cannot aim to become better in what they do while ignoring underlying signs of mental distress. Knowing how to remove mental barriers, therefore, starts with how someone feels. Once they are in a good place emotionally, physically, and mentally, they can start using tools and techniques for removing those mental barriers that hold them back from taking the next step.

Athlete meditates in mental preparation for a game. Sitting on a stump at sunset

Importance of seeking help and support

Besides seeking tools that empower student-athletes to become the best version of themselves, their caregivers should also encourage them to seek support for their mental and emotional struggles when they need to. But in order to do that, they must acknowledge any barriers to seeking mental health care that may exist. Those barriers will prevent the student-athlete from accessing the help they need. 

Psychological support is more than having someone to talk to. It means having access to resources and treatment that can make a major difference in someone’s mental state. The right mental health professional can diagnose a mental struggle and point the student-athlete in the right direction for treatment. Besides, when someone feels seen and understood during their most vulnerable moments, they feel less lonely and isolated. They see that they are not the only ones struggling with emotional pain. This is already a great step ahead in overcoming mental issues. 

To give you more clarity on how can psychological barriers be overcome, start by assessing your mental health. Is there any psychological support you may need before trying to fix those barriers?

Role of coaches and athletic departments in addressing mental barriers

Addressing mental barriers and mental health in student-athletes should involve more people than the student themselves. Coaches and athletic departments should be as involved in this process as the student-athlete’s immediate family. They spend a lot of time interacting with the student, and, as a result of this, their behaviors, conduct, and words will have a strong impact on them. If coaches are not informed about the process of working with mental barriers to performance, they run the risk of creating even more barriers. They should also understand what are the challenges of being a student athlete, such as the pressure to manage multiple commitments and the energy and time required for those. 

Besides, coaches and athletic departments should dedicate time to getting to know each student-athlete individually. This way, they can learn about their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, fears, and aspirations. By becoming more aware of each individual’s unique personality, coaches can deliver more tailored training. For example, when working with an athlete who struggles with confidence issue, a coach can pay greater attention to the way they deliver feedback. Instead of focusing on the athlete’s weaknesses, the coach can instead highlight their strengths. This way, the student-athlete gets to work on their main mental barrier while enhancing their athletic skills as well. Psychological barriers in sport often go hand in hand with mental barriers of life. For this reason, the coaching process should be treated as an opportunity for personal development as well.

Building resilience and mental toughness

Resilience is the foundation of performance in life and sports. It is the psychological component that allows people to go through periods of stress and uncertainty without breaking down. In athletics, being resilient is even more crucial: it helps you accept defeat, keep your optimism while recovering from an injury, and keep going during difficult times. 

Besides, research shows that resilience is a great protector against stress. It makes overcoming psychological barriers and emotional struggles a lot easier. While some student-athletes are naturally a lot more resilient than others, this personality trait can be learned and trained. Some mental strategies for athletes to become more mentally tough are: 

  • Setting realistic goals — which helps them focus on what they can control 
  • Embracing challenges, which means viewing setbacks and failures as opportunities for growth and development. This also offers them the chance to learn from their mistakes and persist in the face of obstacles
  • Adopting healthy coping strategies such as deep breathing, visualization, and positive self-talk. These techniques can help them manage stress, anxiety, and other challenges they may encounter
  • Developing a support system: Create a supportive team environment where student-athletes feel connected and supported by their coaches, teammates, and other staff members. This can provide them with a sense of belonging and help them cope with challenges.
  • Prioritizing health through self-care, sleep, nutrition, and stress management. A physically healthy student-athlete is much more likely to handle stress and pressure than someone who is sleep deprived or in poor health. 
Student Athlete Relaxes by floating in pool

Promoting mental health and well-being

Psychological barriers to performance include the absence of mental well-being in a student-athlete’s life. Even if someone can play in a game or train when they’re not mentally well, they will find it difficult to sustain the same level of performance in the longer term. For this reason, promoting mental health and welling among student-athletes should be a priority for their coaches and caregivers. 

As you might already know, children and teenagers imitate the adults in their life. They will observe their behaviors, words, and gestures, and then copy them without being aware of it. If the adults in the student-athlete’s life will perpetually neglect their mental health, they will feel inclined to follow this model. Promoting mental health isn’t about talking about it all the time – it’s also about being a living and breathing example of it. An adult who cares about their mental health would engage in behaviors such as:

  • Taking time off for themselves
  • Asking for support when feeling overwhelmed
  • Practicing an emotional hygiene ritual (journalling, going to therapy)
  • Keep in contact with their loved ones
  • Managing stress and learn to say no. 

If the student-athlete lives around someone who does all these things, they will automatically follow their example. That’s the most important aspect of promoting mental wellbeing: creating an environment where looking after one’s mental health is a regular habit.

Overcoming mental health barriers to treatment

Even if student-athletes with mental health challenges are eager to seek support, they may face some obstacles. In some cases, they aren’t even aware what are their barriers to mental health treatment, because they don’t know what accessing support looks like

There are many causes why people are not getting the support they need. Some of these obstacles are internal, some are social, and some of the barriers are logistic, meaning that they are related to financial issues, location, or lack of available services in the area

  1. Internal obstacles refer to the person’s inner resistance to getting help. This may happen because they do not know what to expect from a mental health professional. Maybe they have heard strange stories of people who benefited from those services. Or maybe they think that only ‘crazy’ people should get mental health support. No matter what your student-athlete’s resistance is, their biggest challenge is to overcome these stereotypes and see the idea of getting help in a new light. Instead of thinking there’s something wrong with them for getting support, they should just see it as a way to understand themselves better. 
  2. Social barriers to mental health treatment relate to how people perceive the idea of professional help. Mental health issues are often stigmatized, and people with mental health concerns may be seen as weak or incapable of managing their own lives. As a result, individuals experiencing mental health issues may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their condition, and may fear being judged by others. They may worry that seeking help will be seen as a sign of weakness, or that it will damage their reputation or relationships. This stigma can be particularly strong in certain cultural or social contexts, further exacerbating feelings of shame and embarrassment. These negative emotions can act as significant barriers to seeking mental health support, and can prevent individuals from accessing the care they need. 
  3. Finally, some huge barriers to getting mental health support are related to financial issues and lack of service in the area where the student-athlete lives. Perhaps their family cannot afford to pay for their mental health treatment, in which case the school and athletic department should look into offering financial aid. Similarly, if the student-athlete lives in a remote area where mental health support isn’t available, they should look into online therapy options, as these are now offered by many mental health professionals across the world. 

Therefore, to understand how someone can overcome their mental health challenges, they should first understand what are some barriers to mental health treatment they’re facing. 

Psychological barriers solutions

Having some mental barriers to treatment does not mean that someone cannot get well. Those barriers can be fixed with the right approach

Let’s take the first barrier — the student-athlete’s resistance to getting help. If they are afraid of seeking professional support because of some stereotype they have in their mind, exposing to them to the right type of information can help reduce that preconceived idea. This can be achieved through education and through the normalization of mental health challenges. 

If stereotypes are your athlete’s biggest issue, you can help them by giving them examples of people who have a normal life, yet struggle with some emotional issues behind the scenes. Speak to them in a kind and non-judgemental way and let them know that everyone deals with bad mental health days sometimes, but this doesn’t make them less than a normal and good person. Show them that those who seek mental health services are not bad people who are excluded from society. Perhaps your student-athlete needs to hear those things so that they are more open to the idea of talking to someone. 

Besides, education and raising awareness can also be part of the solution to overcoming psychological barriers to treatment. Providing accurate information about mental health conditions and available treatments can help to reduce stigma and increase understanding, making it easier for individuals to seek help without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. 

Once these obstacles are removed, people can find many creative ways in which they can support themselves. Keeping an open mind removes mental barriers to creativity, as well as mental barriers to problem-solving and getting the support someone needs. 

Overcoming mental obstacles for athletes

As the above paragraphs have shown, mental barriers can be overcome. Student-athletes do not have to remain trapped in their fears, worries, and mental health challenges. There are plenty of resources that can support them become the healthiest, most courageous, and most resilient version of themselves. 

The main challenge for them is to stay open to the idea of getting help, and be consistent with practicing self-care. Some of the solutions to removing obstacles to mental health support are normalizing the idea of getting help, providing education and awareness of mental challenges, and fostering a safe environment where people can talk about their struggles. 

Once student-athletes have the right conditions in their environment to ask for help, they can become unstoppable. Recognizing your flaws and worries, accessing the right resources, and practicing new behaviors is how you break past your mental barriers

Lastly, let’s not forget the importance of talking about mental barriers and mental health challenges in positive terms. They are not something we should be ashamed of, but a part of the human condition. In fact, using positive language will help bring those fears and obstacles into our everyday dialogue, which will open more opportunities to find new solutions and steps forward. 

Conclusion

Summary of the paper

This article aimed to provide a complete overview of the most common mental barriers student-athletes struggle with. By now, we hope that you have a clearer idea of what mental barriers are, how to recognize them, and what prevents you from addressing them. Similarly, you should have a better understanding of how to push through those mental barriers and access your maximum potential. 

Although there are many types of mental barriers that can affect performance, the present paper focused on the most common ones:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Depression and loneliness
  • Performance anxiety
  • Fear of failure or success
  • Perfectionism 

Call to action for addressing mental barriers for student-athletes

If the information in this article resonated with you or your student-athlete, take the next step to address mental barriers. Getting informed is the first step in fixing an issue, but knowing something is not usually enough to overcome it. Even if you have more clarity on how to overcome psychological barriers, having the right people to guide you through the change process is essential. 

Fortunately, there are many available tools that help student-athletes deal with their psychological blocks. These tools are created specifically for them, by taking into account their individual struggles and pains. For example, CorrectMyPlay is an online resource that focuses on the mental side of the game, equipping players with the right attitude, effort, character, trust, and responsibility to get to the best version of themselves on the playing field. 

CorrecMyPlay helps you take all the knowledge touched on in this article to the next level and teaches you how to pass it forward to your student-athlete. Using practical tools and digestible information, you will be guided through the process of empowering your student-athlete to overcome those barriers that hold them in the same place. 

Future Directions for Research and Practice

If you have enjoyed learning about mental barriers in student-athletes, feel free to get in touch with us. We are able to provide more knowledge and tools that you deeper your understanding and practice further. If you are interested in one particular mental barriers, we can help with research-based materials on each of those. Additionally, you may want to carry out more individual research on each of those barriers to learn how to help your student-athlete overcome them. Regardless of how you decide to take the next step, remember to always put the information you learn into practice. Sharing your thoughts on mental barriers with someone you know can also help consolidate the knowledge you have just learned. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How do emotional barriers affect communication?

When someone struggles with an emotional barrier, they have a difficult time putting their thoughts into words. An emotional barrier makes it difficult for student-athletes to express themselves because it will make them ashamed of what they want to say. For example, emotional barriers lead people to feel inadequate, inferior, or not good enough. As a result of this, they will keep their thoughts to themselves out of the fear of being judged and criticized. 

It is hard to maintain good communication with people when you are held back by an emotional barrier — mainly because you do not want to be seen by others as who you are. To communicate is to let people know about what’s in your mind, and it requires vulnerability and transparency. However, emotional barriers will make people think that they will be rejected or criticized if they let others see their honest thoughts and opinions. 

Are mental barriers more common in sports?

Many people assume that athletes do not struggle with mental health issues or mental barriers, because exercise and sports promote them against those. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Sports are a highly competitive environment, putting student-athletes under immense pressure. While we can’t say with certainty that mental barriers are more predominant in sports, the competitive environment makes people more likely to doubt themselves and have confidence issues. It also makes them more aware of their mental barriers due to the nature of competitive sports. 

As a student-athlete, you see your peers winning games and performing at their highest level. Naturally, this sets the standards very high for you, making you want to raise it even further. When the pressure is so high, it is almost inevitable to feel stressed, worried, and anxious about your performance. 

This is why, as a student-athlete, you are more likely to want to know how to break down your mental barriers. It’s because you want to push yourself and challenge your limits, something which a non-student athlete wouldn’t necessarily be interested in. You’d also want to know how to make mental barriers non-existent so you can be the successful athlete you’ve always wanted to be. 

Can an athlete overcome mental barriers?

Without a doubt, mental barriers can be worked through. There are plenty of examples of athletes who have challenged their fears and inner obstacles and have gotten to the other side highly successfully. Of course, this is easier said than done. Getting over your psychological limits doesn’t happen overnight — at least not without some effort. Student-athletes can overcome their barriers by identifying them, learning about them, asking for help, and always challenging themselves. They achieve that by working with good coaches and mentors and applying feedback from them. 

For example, an athlete who is afraid of pushing themselves out of fear of getting injured can overcome this fear by working with a mental health professional. They will help the athlete realize that while this fear is valid, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Once the athlete learns how to break this mental barrier in running, they will have the courage to push themselves and challenge their limits. This example can be applied to almost any athlete since there aren’t any specific mental barriers for runners only.

Are mental barriers more difficult in different sports?

Mental barriers are universal — everyone has the same basic emotions like fear, worry, and lack of self-confidence. For this reason, there aren’t mental barriers more specific to a sport than others. However, there might be certain fears that will be more frequent in a sport. For example, some mental barriers in powerlifting, such as the fear of lifting weights, won’t be common in other sports, such as running. Likewise, mental barriers in weightlifting will have slightly different nuances than in sports where physical strength is not the most important thing. 

What are the biggest mental barriers in the game?

Research indicates there are seven most common mental barriers that affect athletes in general. These are confidence, emotional intelligence, mental toughness, athletic identity, motivation, nerves and stress, and the struggle to perform in the zone.

There is a strong reason why mental barriers occupy such as huge place in the sports psychology literature: they have a strong implication on the athlete’s performance and career. For this reason, overcoming mental barriers should be prioritized alongside training.

Break down mental barriers – What is learned helplessness?

If someone tried to cope with a difficult event in the past and failed to do so, they experienced a state of helplessness. This is characterized by feeling powerless and weak in the face of challenging circumstances. When experienced multiple times, this emotional state becomes familiar to the individual — which is why they encounter the state of learned helplessness. 

Whenever someone faces a situation they feel they have very little control over, they resort back to that state of learned helplessness. This also happens because a few mental barriers, such as low confidence and stress, get activated in the moment. If you’re looking for a short answer to psychological barriers, you can also use the concept of learned helplessness to understand them. Even if they are distinct concepts, both of them have a negative effect on athletic performance and prevent the athlete from overcoming their weaknesses and limitations. Fortunately, both mental barriers and learned helplessness can be addressed through therapy and other interventions aimed at building self-esteem, self-efficacy, and resilience.

With mental barriers, what is really holding you back?

Student-athletes who struggle with mental barriers cannot reach their maximum potential. They will constantly be held back by that critical voice that tells them they’re not good enough. Mental barriers are similar to a mental prison which someone must overcome in order to grow, but they cannot do that on their own. In most cases, student and professional athletes need someone who can spot their mental blocks from the outside and show them exactly where they’re stuck. Lack of support is one of the strongest reasons why mental barriers are never overcome by so many athletes, and why many of them end up giving up on their sport for good. Athletes are not aware of the importance of asking for help because their environment does not prioritize mental support. Unfortunately, this lack of awareness of what they need to improve in their personal growth — and how to do it — is what holds them back from becoming the top-performing athlete they want to be. 

The main aspects holding student-athletes back from achieving their goals are fear of failure, low self-esteem, self-criticism, stress and nerves, and the pressure coming from the outside.

References

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