Two new studies explore mental and physical resilience of female athletes

Two new studies will examine female athletes' mental and physical resilience via two newly funded grants, dedicated to improving performance and helping people thrive throughout their lives.

Female athletes face a unique mix of stresses to their mental, physical, hormonal and immune health during training and competition. For too long, sports have focused solely on the results – wins, losses, faster times, and higher scores – while ignoring athletes' mental health. But mental resilience and emotional well-being are every bit as important to succeeding in athletic endeavors or life overall."

Tiffany Stewart, PhD, Director of the Behavior Technology Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center

The projects are funded by the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. The alliance was created by Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai to support athlete research aimed at discovering the foundational principles of optimal performance to translate them into health applications worldwide.

  • One project will recruit 500 female athletes to assess overall mental health and resilience including but not limited to, mood, anxiety, body image, social support, excessive training, sleep, injury at four points during a 12-month period. The research, already underway, is being conducted at Pennington Biomedical/LSU, Trinity University and Harvard University.
  • The second study, which will focus on 50 of LSU's female athletes, will measure mental, physical, hormonal and immune resilience factors during periods of normal, moderate and high stress.

"Little research has been done to identify the best resilience-based strategies for athletes, particularly female athletes. While these research projects focus on athletes, providing people with tools that enable them to better cope with stress, especially the chronic stress that leads to serious health problems, benefits everyone," said Pennington Biomedical Executive Director John Kirwan, Ph.D.

Dr. Stewart said the tide is slowly turning.

Seven years ago, she gave her first presentation on how to help athletes mentally and physically while in sport, but also when transitioning away from competition. Dr. Stewart described ways to help athletes deal with the mental health struggles, cope with injuries, and focus on thriving in life beyond sport.

The attitude of those in attendance, whether donors, research funders, or sports officials could be summarized in three sentences: Athletes are privileged. They have all of the resources they need to succeed. They need to push through and persevere.

"It's time we looked at our athletes from a person-centered focus, not solely a performance-centered focus. We need a core paradigm shift that includes health and well-being for the long-term. We need to hand our athletes mental health and resilience skills, and we also need to look at a shift in athletics" culture and environment. " Stewart says.

The research is supported by two awards from the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, whose founding members are Stanford University, Boston Children's Hospital, UC San Diego, the University of Kansas, the University of Oregon, and the Salk Institute. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance.

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