Prioritizing Mental Health in College Athletes
Prioritizing mental health is a crucial part of a collegiate athlete’s success. While college can be some of the most stressful years of a person’s life, a collegiate athlete must balance more than the average student. Between practice and competition, academics, and personal life, a student-athlete is at high risk to feel overwhelmed, which can be detrimental to one’s mental health. With recent stories regarding the depression and suicides of well-known college athletes, it has come to the public’s attention that we must protect an athlete's mental health just as much as their physical health. This was highlighted most recently in the suicide of Katie Meyer, a Stanford University soccer star, who seemed like a happy-go-lucky athlete to the public. How can the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and its employees assist these student-athletes with prioritizing their mental health when it comes to anxiety and depression?
Review of the Literature
It is not uncommon for student-athletes to feel intense pressure to do well in both school and sports. As the pressure to win increases, athletes and coaches spend more time training and feel more stress, which sometimes leads to overtraining and burnout. An NCAA study found 30% of surveyed athletes feeling extremely overwhelmed, with nearly 25% feeling mentally exhausted (Lindberg, 2021). Although it is common for college students to feel overwhelmed with their class load, studies show that signs of depression are considerably higher in college athletes. A National College Health Assessment reported about 31% of male and 48% of female NCAA student-athletes reported having depression or anxiety symptoms each year the test was issued in 2008 and 2012 (Moreland, 2018).
One explanation for this could be that college athletes are more susceptible to stressors than a typical college student. Some unique stressors can include time demands, missing class, lack of sleep, and poor relationships with teammates or coaches (ACSM, 2021). These athletes' stressors are most likely to affect their grade point average (GPA), and athletic performance, but can also lead to more serious issues, like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts (Davoren & Hwang, n.d.). Despite their increased rates of anxiety and depression, the NCAA has found that college athletes are less likely to seek help than their non-athlete peers (Davoren & Hwang; ACSM, 2021).
Additionally, several athletes struggle to find their identity outside of athletics, which is dangerous because it allows the athlete to gauge their self-worth based on their performance or playing time (Ford Health Staff, 2021). Athletes also reported feeling a sense of disconnect when they graduated due to no longer being an athlete (Vickers, 2019). Collegiate athletes tend to feel a loss of personality once their time being on the field comes to an end because they have spent the majority of their lives as an “athlete” (Weigand et al., 2013). This idea has created a culture that values athletic performance over things like academic success or mental health. Today, a coach’s success is determined solely by the performance of their athletes, regardless of their relationship with the athlete or the athlete’s well-being (Mignano, 2019). Athletes must not be successful at the expense of their own well-being. This overemphasis on winning creates tense environments in which athletes typically find themselves longing to escape. They feel as though they must win to be worthy or important (Egan, 2019).
Implication for the Practitioner
Coaches and athletic administrators must invest in their athletes’ mental health just as much as they invest in their physical well-being. Some effective implications could include:
- Prioritizing mental recovery by emphasizing proper sleep and implementing off-days.
- Avoid placing unreasonable amounts of pressure on individuals.
- Using positive reinforcement rather than negative emotions to motivate.
Allow athletes to voice when they are struggling by establishing a safe environment that is open to these kinds of discussions. It is important to create a healthy relationship with your players where they feel comfortable coming to you with these issues when they feel necessary. Do not degrade your athletes for struggling with these issues through name-calling, placing blame, or punishing them. Inappropriate responses to these concerns due to the imbalance of power between coach and athlete can resemble an abusive relationship. Emphasize the amount of support they have rather than making them feel guilty for struggling.
As a society, we must make time to develop well-rounded humans, not just athletes. Be able to provide encouragement, support, and suggestions to athletes who are struggling (Purcell et al., 2019). Athletes need to feel they are valued as a person more than they are valued as an athlete.
As sports advance, so will the demands of student-athletes. With the emphasis on creating a better environment for student-athletes, the goal is to see their mental health improve as the game evolves. With this, the hope for a decrease in stats of collegiate athletes related to depression, suicide, and eating disorders also occurs. To help ensure sports stay fun again, lowering the numbers in the statistics taken is the first step. This is doable by taking the proper steps to create a healthy environment for every individual player. At the end of the day, our student-athletes are also people, who deserve the proper treatment to ensure a happy and healthy experience.
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Last Updated: 06/21/2022