Athlete Development as a Mental Health and Wellness Intervention


Providing services both as a clinical mental health counsellor, as well as in the athlete development space, I am often left to consider what the best way is to integrate both practices. A common question I come across is: “What is the difference between mental health and mental wellness?” and “How do we stay focused on the latter?” It is important to delineate between these two very important constructs, which are very different, yet undisputedly connected.

During the PAADS Athlete Development Summit in Daytona Beach last week, there was open forum conversation on the topic of mental health and wellness in elite athletics. The conversation provided some context for those having difficulty determining where mental wellness ends and mental health begins. In reality, it is the phrasing of my last sentence that partially contributes to how these two concepts can get crossed up (done intentionally, of course!). Rather than viewing both mental wellness and mental health as two areas of the same spectrum or on a single axis (as my sentence would suggest), understanding each concept as occurring along its own continuum within the same graph provides far more clarity in what differentiates mental wellness from mental health and how the two interact.

But before we can get there, we must clarify between the concepts of mental wellness and mental health. Mental health is a broad term that pertains to the overall function and state of an individual’s psychic activity. Emotional, cognitive, and even behavioural outcomes are all factors used to determine one’s degree of mental health and make determinations as to its level of functioning.  For example, poor functioning or maladaptive tendencies can be deemed as poor mental health or symptoms of a mental health condition. Mental wellness, rather, refers to a quality of psychic experience and reflects one’s ability to employ strategies to promote on-going mental health.

These representations are meant to be illustrative of the differences in the concepts rather than inclusive definitions. We can visualize a 2-continuum model where both concepts operate and interact, albeit on different axes.


Using this model one can see that poor mental health is not necessarily indicative of an inability or incapability to be well or experience wellbeing. Oppositely, it is possible to experience poor mental wellbeing without a mental health condition.

This is not to say that the constructs of mental wellness and mental health operate in isolation. In reality, the relationship between the two is dynamic. For instance, a higher degree of mental wellness can be protective and mitigate many of the factors that can contribute to poor mental health. Mental wellness initiatives and the promotion of activities, skills, and awareness associated with wellbeing can be seen as proactive interventions that can contribute to positive long-term mental health outcomes.

Throughout the Athlete Development Summit, a great deal of the research presented supported the inclusion of mental wellness initiatives in athlete development programs. The contributions of these initiatives, whether it be resilience-based, developing coping strategies, increasing emotional intelligence, or implementing a mindfulness-based practice each has strong evidence supporting their ability to impact and increase mental wellness. These findings in and of themselves warrant their inclusion into athlete development programs at all levels.  Critically, for professional and elite amateur athletes, a massive takeaway needs to be these initiatives contribute to the athletic performance of the athlete.  

One amazing insight that was presented by Dr. David Lavallee of Abertay University,was the finding that athletes who are engaged in athlete development programs tend to perform better and have longer careers. Under the microscope, this may seem counterintuitive; athletes spending more time investing in the “non-athlete” parts of themselves perform better and play longer? How can this be? Yet the macro view of this dynamic hits home: Athlete’s invested in their overall long-term development, in concert with their athletic development, engage, acquire, and develop skills, relationships, and perspectives that contribute to their overall experience of wellness, which not surprisingly, enhances performance.

These findings, in my mind, inform the most persuasive argument to any stakeholder, whether that be coaches, teams, academies, leagues, governing organizations, player associations or parents, for the inclusion of an athlete development strategy that includes education, development, and the broad practice of mental wellness skills.

The real takeaway? Athlete development programs are both performance and mental wellness interventions.  These initiatives contribute to the overall wellness experienced by the athlete both on and off the field.  Such programs represent the greatest opportunity for a win-win outcome for athletes and organizations in the traditionally win-lose environment of elite athletics.

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.
Jay Harrison