Though it’s been quite a few years since college—let’s just say somewhere between ten and twenty!—it seems like yesterday that I was juggling the various demands of both scholastics and athletics. At times, I managed to keep all the balls in the air, but more often I ended up dropping one or two, sometimes all of them. As a former collegiate swimmer, I have a soft spot for student-athletes and the unique challenges they face. And as a therapist, I can offer some insight into how to meet these challenges.
There is no denying that “jocks” benefit from a number of protective factors—for example, a support network of teammates and coaches, and the healthy effects of exercise—but this doesn’t make them immune to mental health issues. In fact, other considerations make this subset of young adults even more susceptible than their peers to disorders such as depression and anxiety. Whether you are a student-athlete yourself, or the parent, teacher, coach, or friend of one, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the risk factors for this particular population.
Any big life change—going through a break-up, getting married, having a baby, moving, starting a new job—can be a trigger for mental health problems to arise, regardless of whether you perceive the event as positive or negative. Graduating high school, leaving home, living on your own for the first time, and beginning your college career is four in one! You’re not a kid anymore, but you don’t quite feel like a full-fledged adult either. And while these several years can be a total blast, they can also be extremely emotionally challenging. Add to it the demands of training and performing as an athlete and the challenge intensifies.
The looming weight of expectation can be heavy for athletes at any level, even more so for those competing at high levels in their sport. This pressure may arise from external factors (parents, coaches, teammates, the need to obtain and/or retain scholarship funds) or from the athlete’s own mind. Chances are that an individual who has made it to a high performance level has not done so without a great deal of internal drive and self-discipline. And after years of this, it often becomes difficult to maintain the fine line that separates healthy motivation from soul-crushing pressure. Some athletes develop a deep connection—conscious or unconscious—between their self-worth and their athletic performance, which can lead to a negative sense of self when performance falls short.
Not Enough Time
5:00 a.m. morning practice. Class. Homework. Nap? More class. More practice. Study. Sleep around 10:00 p.m. (see: 5:00 a.m. morning practice). Weekend travel for games/meets. Oh, yeah, I have to eat somewhere in there. And it’d be nice to hang out with friends at some point. But if I don’t keep my grades up, I’ll lose my scholarship, and then what?!? Balance is key when it comes to managing life as a student-athlete, and the strict schedule can be a perfect breeding ground for anxiety to rear its ugly head.
In addition to these unique risk factors, student-athletes might also be even less likely than their counterparts to seek out mental health treatment when they really need it. First, there’s the unfortunate (and totally untrue) stigma that having mental health issues is a sign of weakness. And in the athletic community, being seen as “weak” is especially undesirable. If you’re not “tough enough” to handle your own emotions, then how could you handle the pressure of the game? Will you be able to meet the physical demands of training? Do you have what it takes to win? Then there are the ever-popular sports’ slogans, like “Just do it” and “No pain, no gain,” which give the impression that athletes should ignore pain, push through it, tough it out. And while this mentality undeniably does have a certain place in the world of sports, applying this message to one’s mental well-being can have devastating effects. Unfortunately, these external messages cause many student-athletes to think, “What will happen if people (my coach, parent, teammates…) find out about my ‘weakness’?,” and so they do not seek help.
Lend a Helping Hand
As friends, family, coaches, teammates, and society at large, there are several things we can do to help mitigate some of these risks. For one, we can make sure that students have easy access to services that provide quality mental health care, which many colleges and universities do offer. Equally as important is ensuring that students are made aware of the availability of these services, and that education on signs and symptoms of mental health issues is provided. For student-athletes in particular, especially those that may be hesitant to seek out help for their internal struggles, it may be helpful to frame treatment as a way not only to address emotional and psychological needs but also to improve sports performance as a result. And lastly, because many athletes tend to tie much of their identity to their sport, it’s important to encourage and nurture an identity that resides outside of being an athlete. Casting a wide net of support across a well-balanced life can often make a world of difference.