Young athletes need mental health training too

The research is clear: There’s a positive association between physical activity and the prevention and treatment of mental health issues. But as tennis star Naomi Osaka, swimmer Michael Phelps and US gymnast Simone Biles have shown in recent years, the pressure can be overwhelming for sportspeople at the top of their game… And it’s especially hard on younger athletes, for whom competitive pressures can lead to psychological distress.

That’s why it’s critical to ensure that younger athletes don’t just do physical training, but also get psychological support as well, to ensure that they stay mentally healthy, says 8-time SA Superbike Champion Clint Seller.

‘Let’s face it: Top sport is all about results. Athletes are constantly pushing themselves to new limits. But the pressure can have a massive effect on the mental health of a young athlete,’ says Seller, who leads the King Price Xtreme racing team.

‘You can be the hero in 1 race, and then the next you end up in a gravel trap and you’re injured for weeks on end. It’s tough. In racing (as in most sports) you lose a lot more than you ever win. I have 8 SA titles, but I’ve been racing since I was 16. You can never link your mental health and your motivation to your results.’

For Seller, staying mentally healthy starts with fitness and being active. It also helps that he has a normal 9-to-5 job, which keeps him balanced and allows him to keep perspective across all aspects of his life: Family, work, and being a sportsman.

The importance of physical activity in the prevention of diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease is widely recognised, but a growing body of research suggests that staying active has positive effects on mental health by increasing self-esteem and lowering stress and anxiety levels.

‘You don’t have to be an elite sportsperson to know that training, and keeping healthy and fit and strong, helps you stay mentally healthy too. If you’re getting beaten on the racetrack, or in life, you work harder in the gym to put the smile back on your face, and then you come back stronger,’ says Seller.

Seller’s King Price Xtreme team is 1 of the most youthful on the circuit, and he says the team spends a lot of time keeping the young racers grounded and humble, and ensuring that they have a wide range of interests and activities beyond the track.

‘When I was making my way in racing, it was a case of ‘cowboys don’t cry’. Now we’re making sure that our young athletes are taught coping mechanisms to deal with stress, and feel confident and comfortable to ask for help when the pressure is on,’ says Seller.

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