Mental Health in Elite Sport: Professor Juergen Beckmann on the shift in thinking and the steps still to go

This October I once again contributed to the Masters class at PESS, teaching on  the Professional Practice and Ethics in Applied Psychology module. My perspective was however narrowed by the camera lens of Zoom as a result of the global pandemic instead of the wider technicolour images and memories I experienced in the PESS Summer Schools at Clarisford Park on the banks of the river Shannon. For several years now, I have been really excited to work with the next generation of sport psychologists emerging from PESS including IRC Scholar Jessie Barr, and Masters graduates Mags McCarthy, Samantha Glynn, Andree Walkin, Greig Oliver and John O’Neill, to name but a few.

My lecture topics at PESS have focused on elite sport and mental health and the challenges of applying psychology in professional sport. This year my lecture was entitled “Elite performance and well-being: Is there an inevitable conflict?” With the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games and many major sporting events, the challenges are  vast but how have athletes coped? I will return to this issue shortly but I was acutely aware that the students in PESS had been through an extraordinary year with their classroom flipped online and instead of walk and talk under the leafy canopy of Clarisford Park, connected through our natural surroundings, it was broadband that connected us digitally.

My interactions with the curious Irish students reminded me of what resonates with them in their lives during this global pandemic. My early work on motivation and volition were reported thirty years ago and perhaps that work may provide insights today. My contemporary outputs on meaning and nature, including a book chapter entitled Meaning, Nature and Well-Being with Dr Eric Igou (Dept. of Psychology, UL) and Prof. Eric Klinger in the text by Aoife Donnelly and Tadhg MacIntyre last year may be most prescient. Nature offers us a pathway to recovery and reminds us of the key principles of metamorphosis and resilience, perhaps worth recalling in our current COVID19 stasis.

A background as an elite junior skier and subsequently with role in the national coaching staff, prior to graduating in psychology instilled a positive perspective of sport systems. Increasingly over the decades I was questioning this ethos and a  research breakthrough was led by Insa and Raphael Nixdorf, my doctoral students at the time, occurred just over a decade ago. Together we conducted exhaustive studies of mental health and burnout in elite youth sport. A seminal article demonstrated that individual athletes were more prone to depression and the findings were impactful, gaining coverage in the Guardian and generating commentaries and almost 100 citations. A keynote presentation at the BPS division of sport, exercise and performance psychology in Belfast was a fitting capstone for this body of work. More recently, I have taken an avid interest in promoting psychological recovery among athletes and other groups. My role within the Horizon 2020 project GOGREEN ROUTES is to investigate how people in cities can connect to nature and how this relationship can open a window into managing their own well-being. This research will be conducted by Post-Doctoral research Fernando Cross with PhD candidate Ximena Tiscareno and I’m certain this research journey will bear fruit.

Our research topic on mental health in sport during the COVID19 global pandemic offers an opportunity to see how athletes can respond to an acute stressor. Resilient responses have been somewhat overlooked in much of the discourse about our ability to deal with the myriad of challenges we have faced since lockdown in March this year. Together with Tadhg and an international team there are 25 articles submitted for review and this augurs well for our understanding of coping within and beyond the sport context. My experiences as a sport psychologist have changed from focusing stabilisation and improvement of performance to developing the whole person with a responsibility to support their well-being.

Just like with the graduate students at PESS I have had the pleasure of teaching this semester, the GOGREEN ROUTES project and our forthcoming Routledge Handbook on Mental Health and Mental Illness in Elite Sports (Eds. Insa Nixdorf, Raphael Nixdorf, Tadhg MacIntyre and Scott Martin), the best is yet to come.


About the author: Professor Juergen Beckmann, Adjunct Professor at PESS, is the Chair of Sport Psychology at the Technical University of Munich. A former President of the German Federation of Sport Psychology he has been a visiting scholar at the Florida Atlantic University, University of Oslo, Southwest JiaoTong University (China) and the University of Queensland. Juergen  has a h-index of 36 with over 5,000 citations and has supervised 21 PhD students many of whom have gone on to become learned experts in the field including Prof. Anne-Marie Elbe (former President of FEPSAC), Prof. Michael Kellman () who developed the REST-Q inventory. Juergen lives with his family just outside of Munich within sight of the Wallberg, a vast peak in the Bavarian Alps.  

Prof Jurgen
Twitter: @ProfJBeckman

Tagged with: