Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, is taking the first steps toward this end. He heads up a team of researchers at Athletes Connected, a multi-departmental initiative that helps athletes deal with mental-health problems and raises awareness about mental-health issues on campus. By tracking objective measurements of athletic and academic performance as they compare to athletes’ mental states, he believes that the connections between mental health and performance may be able to be more concretely studied.
Eisenberg recently began modeling this approach by collecting self-reported surveys and statistics from Michigan athletes. During the university’s previous semester, Eisenberg and his team asked 43 Wolverines to complete weekly mental-health surveys, which focused on the athletes’ levels of anxiety and depression and their assessments of their academic and athletic performances. Questions about injuries, sleep, and stressors helped to control for variables surrounding mental health, because these external factors are known to inhibit performance. The athletes provided roughly 530 data points, which Eisenberg and his team now are analyzing.
But self-reported surveys have their limits. “People tend to over-report their own abilities … and their own performance,” Eisenberg says. “There's systematic biases, and there's also probably random biases, or noise, around subjective measures.” What he’s really after is hard data: the squat maxes, 100m dash times, assist/turnover ratios, and putt lengths that demonstrate an athlete’s fitness and focus. Combined with survey information, Eisenberg envisions the data providing numbers to go with self-reports, allowing the connections between the two to be more easily understood.
Eisenberg and his team are still in the process of gathering the performance points to marry to their survey data. They have acquired academic information from the registrar, and they’re working on tracking down sports stats from the university’s immense and highly competitive athletic department.
As one example of what the team has in mind, consider the bounty of data available for a stat-centric sport like baseball. There are the obvious statistics, like a player’s batting average or the number of runs a pitcher allows, but also Sabermetric formulas complex enough to demonstrate how valuable a player is over a replacement (VORP) and even how well that player performs in “late-inning pressure situations” (LIPS)—a measurement of clutch.
The ultimate benefit of these more objective measurements may not only be a more scientifically precise understanding of mental health’s impacts on people, but also the ways societies handle mental-health issues. For instance, Eisenberg's study could have implications for how mental wellness is assessed in insurance structures that reward doctors for keeping patients healthy and avoiding expensive medical care, like Blue Cross of Massachusetts's Alternative Quality Contract (AQC) system.