Posted 17/10/2020 in Category 1

Mental Fatigue in Elite Sport

Mental Fatigue in Elite Sport


Mental Fatigue is an issue that can have a negative impact on athletic performance. Whether it is a netball player momentarily switching off and allowing the person she is marking to get a yard of space, a footballer missing a crucial opportunity to score a goal because she was slow reacting to a through ball, or a cricket batsman close to century getting out by playing a tired shot.  Mental fatigue is a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity (Desmond & Hancock, 2001; Job & Dalziel, 2001). 


To explore perceptions of mental fatigue in athletes and support staff Suzanna Russell and colleagues conducted nine focus group discussions with 32 participants. The participants comprised athletes (n=17) and staff (n=15) from elite sporting organisations. The inclusion criteria was that participants needed to have been in an elite environment either as an athlete (>2 years) or coach, assistant coach, sports scientist, physiotherapist, dietitian, psychologist or team manager (>5 years). Of the 15 staff they had been either currently, or recently, involved in athletics (2), Australian rules football (3), cricket (4), netball (8), rugby (6), basketball (2), hockey (1) and soccer (1). The 17 athletes were currently competing in cricket (5), netball (11) and rugby (2). Athletes represented their country and/or were involved with open selection teams (e.g., Big Bash League (BBL), Suncorp Super Netball (SSN), etc).


Analysis of the focus group data revealed five distinct general dimensions. The first three themes related to the description and nature of mental fatigue. The final two related to the causes and impact of mental fatigue


  • In describing mental fatigue the participants focused on decreased motivation and enthusiasm, an inability to regulate emotions as effectively as before, feeling more disengaged and less able to access the information needed. Allied to this was a lack of concentration and discipline.
  • In the discussion the participants sought to distinguish between mental and physical fatigue. For some both were hard to separate in that physical fatigue led to mental fatigue, although others did see a distinguishable difference.
  • The temporal nature of mental fatigue addressed whether it built up over the season and was cumulative or acute where an event such as extreme physical exertion led to mental fatigue. The interaction between the two was also addressed where acute mental fatigue may be the result of the build up of events over preceding days. 


Perhaps of greater practical relevance are the causes and inducement of mental fatigue and the specific impacts it has on performance. 


  • Some of the causes of mental fatigue included other commitments (e.g., balancing work and competition), the environment (e.g., environment kept changing), experience (more seasoned athletes may be able to manage mental fatigue better whereas new athletes may struggle). Two aspects jumped out at us from the data and relates to performing at an elite level. First, is that over-analysis can be something that is mentally-fatiguing and also the business side of being an athlete, including interviews, dealing with sponsors and so on contributes to mental fatigue.  
  • In terms of the impact there were six main outcomes, first performance overall, second it takes greater effort to do tasks that should be comparatively easy, third decision-making is worse, fourth response-times are slower, fifth mistakes are greater and finally impulse control is poorer. 


This was a study that addressed an interesting topic. Although it would have been perhaps interesting to have a greater focus on strategies to mitigate mental fatigue. That said, one of the themes to emerge from the paper was that practitioners should be aware of likely individual variability in susceptibility to mental fatigue, with the level of experience and (sporting) intelligence emerging as contributing factors.


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Reference

Desmond, P., & Hancock, P. (2001). Active and passive fatigue states. In P. Hancock (Ed.), Stress, workload, and fatigue (pp. 455–465). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Job, R., & Dalziel, J. (2001). Defining fatigue as a condition of the organism and distinguishing it from habituation, adaptation, and boredom. In P. A. Hancock (Ed.), Stress, workload, and fatigue (pp. 466–478). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Russell, S., Jenkins, D., Rynne, S., Halson, S. L., & Kelly, V. (2019) What is mental fatigue in elite sport? Perceptions from athletes and staff, European Journal of Sport Science, 19:10, 1367-1376, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1618397