“Handball is not only the hand, but also the head,” is a classic saying. A player needs to know how to play clever and steer a match, but must also have mental stability, especially under pressure and in crunch-time situations.

Therefore, sports psychology and mental health are critical to developing this mental strength. But what does mental health mean and how can you train it?

Professor Renata Baric is sports psychologist at the University of Zagreb and is an expert in mental health in handball.

“A sports psychologist works with the player individually or with a team as a whole. It is important, as for the sport training, to have some continuity and regular meetings, and the basis for their work is a good relationship of trust between a player and sport psychologist,” says Baric.

In her opinion, a sports psychologist should be an integral part of the expert staff working with players and coaches in a team sport like handball. Many coaches now want to work on the psychological part of their leadership to become better coaches and better leaders, to improve their abilities, to identify players’ needs, to communicate with the team and individual players in more efficient and better way.

“Of course, there are some players who still don’t want their coaches to know about their work with a sports psychologist, but it is a minority. Coaches react more and more positively,” believes Baric.

Mainly in the last few years, mental health has become a topic in high performance sports, not only in handball.

One aspect – but not the only one – is mental training, as Baric points out: “Mental training is only a part of psychological preparation in sport process, it is related to use of some techniques like arousal regulation, concentration or goal-setting. Psychological preparation is a wider framework which takes into consideration the particular athlete, their needs, experience, problems, goals, aspirations, and sporting environment. A sports psychologist creates a specific approach that differs from player to player.”

In Baric’s opinion, every player should have certain psychological skills to cope with demands, high expectations and overall pressure.

“Athletes are expected to be emotionally resistant – that is not an easy task. At the same time, they are expected to play well despite all those environmental and internal pressuring influences. We help athletes to understand better how their mind works, together we work on player’s awareness and emotional state or self-confidence or how to communicate to yourself and others, how to make decisions,” she says.

Doctors and sports psychologists alike agree that mental health is a key factor for sporting success, and with good mental health you definitely have more fun being a player. The earlier you start with having an eye on mental health the better, says Baric.

“Competitive sport is very stressful. Learning some psychological skills helps athletes to cope better with different demands of their sport, their environment, and helps them to balance their sporting and non-sporting life. It prevents problems, makes them stronger on court and for life, and prevents the early withdrawal from sport that is an actual problem,” Baric adds.

“In the end, psychological knowledge helps coaches too and altogether it helps create a healthier sporting environment, where the conditions for the optimal psycho-social development of young players will be established. The important part of any sports psychologist’s work is also to work with parents who should learn how to become sporting parents, a source of support not pressure.”