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  • Anderson Pickard

Navigating Mental Health in Sports

by Andersen Pickard

March 19, 2023

As awareness surrounding anxiety and depression continues to grow, there has been an increased focus on the mental health of athletes, particularly among the younger generations. High school and collegiate athletes face a staggeringly high amount of pressure, which can create enormous mental health challenges.

When athletes suffer a physical injury, it’s no secret. Often, they receive medical attention from a trainer or doctor, take time to recover, undergo a methodically-chosen rehab process, and then undergo another evaluation before they’re cleared to play again. However, mental health is quite different; individuals may try to hide or mask their internal struggles, and as a result, it’s very challenging for their peers to see that they are dealing with mental illness.

Why do student-athletes suffer from mental illness?

Pressure from coaches can have an enormous impact on student-athletes. Many coaches use aggressive methods like yelling at, degrading, humiliating, or overworking athletes in hopes of motivating them. Even if this produces short-term performance results, it can have drastically negative mental health ramifications.

It’s also common for athletes to suffer from imposter syndrome, which is an internal feeling that makes an individual believe that they are inferior to others and should attribute their success to luck rather than talent, skill, and hard work. Imposter syndrome is not currently an officially recognized medical condition, but it is often associated with mental health.

Furthermore, athletes often feel incredibly overworked and overexerted. While exercising and playing sports can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, that’s not always the case, especially for student-athletes. These individuals are usually incredibly competitive people who will push their bodies beyond the limits to train or perform in their respective sports. Not only can this lead to overtraining, burnout, and stress, but it piles on top of the existing burden to excel socially and in the classroom. Student-athletes are held to high standards on the field and in school, so trying to achieve these lofty benchmarks can be draining.

Finally, focusing immense time and effort on sports and school can keep students up late at night, forcing them to sacrifice much-needed sleep. “Sleep problems can contribute to the onset and worsening of different mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation,” according to a 2022 blog post from the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. “Sleep deprivation studies show that otherwise healthy people can experience increased anxiety and distress levels following poor sleep.”

What is the data saying?

According to USA TODAY, 30 percent of college students battling mental illness seek help. However, only 10 percent of student-athletes do so. This means that the population of student-athletes is three times less likely to seek help, and that’s incredibly concerning.

The American College of Sports Medicine reports that a staggering 35 percent of student-athletes experience disordered eating, burnout, depression, or anxiety. This percentage approaches the range where these experiences are simply considered the norm in high school and pro sports, which is terrible.

Finally, here are some concerning statistics from a May 2022 NCAA survey of more than 9,000 collegiate athletes:

  • Less than half of the student-athletes surveyed said that they would feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.

  • 38 percent of female student-athletes and 22 percent of male student-athletes reported feeling mentally exhausted most days.

  • More student-athletes (in both men’s and women’s sports) cited mental health as a reason for transferring schools than any other reason or factor, including playing time and relationship with coaches.

What can I do as a coach?

Student-athletes can be independent, competitive people and, as the data shows, are less likely to speak up and ask for help. The onus is on coaches and administrators to take action.

Coaches can make an impact as soon as a student-athlete arrives on their high school or college campus by explaining the resources available. Schools love to brag about their dining hall, fitness room, or safety protocols and should make an equally strong effort to emphasize the availability and importance of their mental health resources.

It may sound simple, but maintaining a positive relationship with student-athletes can also go a long way. This means that not only should coaches be respectful to their players, but they should be honest, sympathetic, and loyal, too.

Additionally, coaches can work to reduce the stigma around health. What does this look like? It can be as simple as talking about the signs and symptoms of mental health in a practice or team meeting, or as advanced as bringing in an outside expert to educate the entire team. Just talking about mental health (as opposed to purposefully avoiding the topic) is important, as long as nobody feels singled out. Encourage open conversation about serious issues like anxiety and depression.

What can I do as a teammate?

A teammate might not be the same as a coach, but they can still follow similar steps to create a better, healthier, and safer environment for their teammates.

Student-athletes should educate themselves so that they minimize the stigma surrounding mental health and also understand potential warning signs. It’s very challenging to speak to a teammate about a sensitive topic like mental health, but it might just save their life. Oftentimes, individuals struggling with their own mental health are hesitant to ask for help themselves but secretly want (or need) someone else to reach out to them. Student-athletes should maintain a trustworthy, respectful, and positive relationship with their teammates so that they can be relied on during these difficult but important conversations.

Teammates should also be mindful and knowledgeable about the policies and resources available at their respective schools. This creates a larger network of support so that student-athletes can comfortably reach out to a coach, administrator, or trainer. What exactly does this look like? According to EliteFTS, student-athletes should pay close attention to “clinical licensure of practitioners providing mental health care, procedures for identification and referral of student-athletes to qualified practitioners, pre-participation mental health screening, [and] health-promoting environments that support mental well-being and resilience.”

What can I do as a student-athlete?

At a more basic level, student-athletes can strengthen their mental health by prioritizing their tasks, taking time to enjoy hobbies not related to athletics, and committing to a schedule that will allow them to balance their time efficiently and, therefore, reduce stress.

Student-athletes concerned about their mental health are also strongly encouraged to have a conversation with an individual (or several individuals) they trust. This can be a parent, sibling, teacher, coach, trainer, administrator, therapist—you name it.

Never forget that if you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, there are ways to get help. You are not alone. Individuals should utilize reputable resources ranging from online publications to mental health hotlines to doctors and therapists. More information and resources can be found on SAMHSA or NIMH.

Whether its on the court, field, classroom, or in your home, just remember to Fight Your Fearz.

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