The field of human wellbeing has a lot to offer the sporting world when it comes to taking care of athletes. In this opinion piece, Ms Aradhana Sharma, Senior Sports Science Consultant and Director of Nutrigetic Wellness LLP raises the importance of putting carefully planned systems in place that help athletes strike a healthy balance between success and satisfaction in their work and personal lives as well.
Ms Aradhana Sharma is a participant of the 4th edition of the High Performance Leadership Development Program conducted by ELMS Sports Foundation
Human wellbeing is a well-researched concept around the world. However, very little of that research has addressed the importance of wellbeing in high-performance sports. In our sports ecosystem, "wellbeing" and "wellness" are mostly used interchangeably. Both terms actually have different meanings, especially when used in the context of high performance training. We need to understand that athlete wellbeing is not limited to mental wellness and physical fitness, but goes beyond that. It is important for our sporting ecosystem to acknowledge the impact of various aspects of an athlete's life on sports performance, and provide comprehensive support systems to address the issues rising across different aspects.
Defining wellness and wellbeing
Before trying to understand the need for a support system to enhance overall athlete wellbeing, we need to understand that wellness and wellbeing are two different concepts. The World Health Organization defines wellness as “the optimal state of health of individuals and groups”. Wellness generally refers to physical fitness and mental wellbeing. Wellbeing,on the other hand, has been linked to success at professional, personal, and interpersonal levels. Wellbeing has been defined as the combination of feeling good and functioning well; it encompasses various aspects such as physical fitness, mental wellness, nutrition care, sleep quality, stress management, and overall satisfaction with life.
When we discuss athlete wellbeing, it means acknowledging the importance of taking care of their physical health, mental wellness, emotional wellness, financial aspects and social connections. All these factors, if not balanced, may impact an athlete’s performance negatively. Athletes are generally seen as superheroes who achieve high levels of sports performance and display higher physical abilities. However, there are times we forget that athletes are human too. Wellbeing means providing the athlete with a carefully planned system that addresses not only physical and mental,but also their emotional, social, environmental, and financial aspects.
Why is athlete wellbeing important?
Behind their exceptional skills and achievements, athletes do experience a range of emotions, vulnerabilities, and challenges. Finding a balance between professional training and personal life can be challenging for high performing athletes. They often face pressure to perform at their best and get a podium finish. Additionally, they undergo intense training and rigorous travel and competition schedules.
Though competitive athletes spend long hours in training and competition, they also have personal lives and social relationships to maintain. Maintaining professional and personal relationships, focusing on career and studies, pursuing hobbies, and taking care of their overall wellbeing are essential for them to strike the right work-life balance.. If overall wellbeing is neglected it may lead to overreaching, burnout, injuries, or even long term impact on their health.
Aspects of athlete wellbeing
Finances: A career in sports can also be financially challenging. A high performing athlete may drop out due to not getting sponsorship or financial support from the organization, while worries about finances and the future of their career may drive others to leave the sport for a more stable career. The constant pressure to win can create a stressful social environment where athletes struggle to meet expectations and find an imbalance in sports and personal life. The sports ecosystem can pay special attention to these aspects of wellbeing, and work towards providing resources in the form of financial stability options, emotional guidance and a supportive social environment. This in turn can help reduce the number of athletes who give up their sporting career due to these challenges.
Injury Management: Dealing with injuries can be physically and emotionally challenging for athletes. It can at times put a question mark on their ability to perform and manage finances in a way that supports their training and livelihood. Acknowledging these concerns that can affect an athlete’s wellbeing allows us to provide required support that would not only deal with proper medical treatment but also address their emotional vulnerability during rehabilitation.
The importance of focusing on wellbeing
By prioritizing overall wellbeing in sports culture today, we can ensure that athletes thrive not only as performers but also as individuals. Simple steps such as easy access to professional support services like counsellors, nutritionists, psychologists, financial advisors, planned rest periods between intense training and competition cycles can help athletes to optimize their wellbeing while striving for excellence in sports performance. Striking a balance between wellbeing and wellness will prove to be beneficial for high performing athletes who aim for long term successful career in competitive sports while maintaining good health, happiness and overall life satisfaction.
It is time we acknowledge that we can’t rely on solely prioritizing physical fitness and mental wellness; we must also consider theor overall wellbeing. High performing athletes are not just machines built to perform and produce medals, but individuals who have unique needs and vulnerabilities. It is crucial for sports organizations, coaches, admins, and support staff to come together and create programs that will address all aspects of an athlete's wellbeing and support him/her to achieve high performance in true sense.
An integrated model of wellbeing
Many aspects of overall wellbeing are addressed well for Indian athletes in the high performance realm. Our athletes do receive support for mental and physical wellbeing, but we need to work more on a few other aspects like social, financial, environmental and emotional wellbeing. We need to develop an integrative wellbeing model for athletes that would help them to perform optimally in sports, but also to achieve higher levels of self-awareness, social connectedness, financial, and emotional stability.
We need to work on getting more recognition of wellbeing practices and providing appropriate support services to athletes based on their individual requirement. An awareness program on overall wellbeing in the high performance ecosystem will be a good start to introduce the concept and guidelines to stakeholders.
Providing a conducive environment and promoting athlete wellbeing will not only support the athlete to perform better but will also promote responsible behaviours both within sports communities and society at large.