At six o’clock in the morning, the bell tower alarm chimes from my iPhone. I hit snooze about three times before crawling out from the warmth of the covers. Stumbling over my feet and a house cat eager to be fed, I make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Grudgingly, I get dressed, throwing on sweats—sliding each layer over the next—building a barrier against the cold of the early winter morning. Outdoor track practice is wet; the cold permeates through my layers to my bones. As I begin to move through dynamic running drills, high knees, A-skips, and B-skips, my body begins to warm up and the sky slowly becomes less gray and turns into a light dusty navy. After two hours of running in the moist cold air, I inevitably end up lying on the floor, waiting for my toes to regain feeling before getting up to shower. I have about ninety minutes between getting back from practice and the start of my first writing class of the day. I spend my time in the library in between classes doing homework. The second class concludes and I head back to my room for a nap to recharge and refuel before going back to the library later that night.
This packed schedule is a typical day amongst student-athletes. The NCAA caps practice and athletic-related activities at twenty hours a week. Being a student-athlete is a job, we must show up on time and do the work. In addition, student-athletes must go to class, do homework, make sure they are eating enough during the day, get eight hours of sleep, and maybe work another job or have an internship.
“My major is not for athletes,” says senior social work major, and long sprinter Magnalen Camara. Camara’s unpaid internship is thirty minutes away and she has to complete fourteen to sixteen hours each week. Her days are long, and the pressure of getting it all done, to a championship level, is stressful.
The demands on student-athletes test their mental health. The three common stressors that student-athletes experience are academic, athletic, and social.
College student-athletes juggle a packed schedule of classes, multiple practices per day, eating meals, socializing, and homework. There are not enough hours in the day for student-athletes. Spare time is sparse, oftentimes student-athletes are up late doing homework during the hours they should be sleeping.
One of the largest impacts on a student-athlete’s mental health are injuries. Every athlete prays that if they do get injured, let it happen in the off-season. The recovery road coming back from an injury can be long, dark, and lonely. I know this to be true because I have lived it. My sophomore year I clipped a toe on a hurdle and fell flat on my face. Six months went by not knowing why I still could not run. An MRI revealed I sustained a hole in my kneecap from the fall, practically shattered it. The year that I could not run was coupled with COVID-19. Not knowing what was causing my body pain, doing school online, and being alone in my dorm, I felt hopeless and depressed. I underwent surgery the summer going into my junior year. Hours of physical therapy during the week were challenging but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Thankfully I was able to come back healthy from surgery and continue running, for some athletes their injuries can be career ending.
According to the Mayo Clinic hospital symptoms of anxiety contain but are not limited to: feeling nervous, restless, tense, sense of impending doom, increased heart rate, trembling, and trouble sleeping. Student-athletes undergo pressure that they put on themselves, coaches, or teammates. If athletes don’t perform well, negative emotions like low self-worth and low self-esteem arise that can lead to anxiety and depression. Overthinking leads to the athlete not focusing on their sport when they step on the court, track, field or pool, which can trigger a mental breakdown or panic attack. According to research conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine on student athletes mental health, 30 percent of women and 25 percent of men report experiencing anxiety. Those are only the ones that report it, the number is most definitely larger. Getting overwhelmed from trying to do well in school and sports can feel like drifting on a raft in an ocean. Performance within a sport does not determine an athlete’s value as a person, many athletes have a hard time separating their private life from their sport life.
It’s no secret that professional athletes get paid up to millions of dollars to play their sport on national television. They’re entertainers. Baseball, football, and men’s basketball are the top-paying professional sports. Many college athletes believe that going pro is their only shot of success. That they have to “make it” in order to provide for their family and give back to those who sacrificed for them. This added pressure they put on themselves is coupled with the socio-cultural nature of the sport. Hundreds of athletes enter the draft as soon as they’re eligible for their sport, however only a minuscule percentage make it. 1.6 percent of college football players are drafted, even less than that percentage actually make it on the field. Sixty players are drafted each year during the NBA draft, 4.2 percent of college athletes who entered the draft are selected. For baseball the margin is larger due to each organization having minor league teams with 10.5 percent of eligible seniors drafted. These small percentages translate into enormous amounts of pressure for athletes competing for the same job.
Over the last year, every month, student athletes went from the sports pages to the front page. The headline was the same, only the name of the school and the sport changed. The endings were also, tragically, similar.
Their stories are all similar: a bright, energetic, loving, young student-athlete has committed suicide. And no one saw this coming. The passing of Stanford women’s soccer star Katie Meyer caused heartache across the nation. Student-athletes have adapted a game day face, they can conceal their emotions on a day-to-day like they do while playing. No one knew what these beautiful souls were going through because of the stressors listed above or they were too scared or nervous to express what was really going on. Their deaths have greatly affected the college sports community. It has suffered but also has sparked a flame, a need for change.
Schools have to follow NCAA rules, thus the outcry for help was directed toward the governing organization. Under the NCAA each school is charged with facilitating an environment that reinforces physical and mental health within athletics by ensuring access to appropriate resources and open engagement with respect to physical and mental health. Not all schools are able to provide their student-athletes with a team of sports psychologists or even one sports psychologist. They partner with the school’s counseling services and help guide athletes to them. It’s important schools have resources within athletics for student-athletes to feel comfortable accessing.
In an interview in the Washington Post, Christopher Bader, the assistant athletic director of mental health and performance at the University of Arkansas notes, “One of the scariest parts of our job as psychologists, in general, is not knowing. I can see somebody every week for an hour a week, and that’s only one-one-hundred-sixty-eighth of their week. There’s 167 other hours that I don’t see them; that’s the scary part when you hear of things like this.”
Angie Rafter is a senior on the CCSU Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field Team, who is a Health Psychology Master’s student focusing on the mental health of student-athletes. When asked what areas are lacking in mental health for athletes, she commended the strides that have been taken to address the mental health concerns among student-athletes. However, she believes policies in place by the NCAA need more attention. “The NCAA leaves it up to each institution to decide what mental health practices are set in place for their student-athletes; many schools and student-athletes face disparities. Which leads me to another area that is lacking, resources.”
A driving factor towards the utilization of mental health resources is advocacy. In Rafter’s words, “student-athletes need to hear that from their coaching staff, athletic administration, and teammates.” The first step to getting help can feel like the largest step.
In an attempt to lessen the stressors on college student-athletes more resources need to become available. At my university, SAAC (the Student Athlete Advisory Committee) in collaboration with the administration have established The Wellness Room. The Wellness Room is a space just for student athletes, no coaches are allowed. It’s a cozy corner in the athletic building with essential oils steaming from a diffuser, and soft white fairy lights strung from the walls. The room is decorated with inspirational quotes and mantras, stress relief and breathing techniques are posted to the walls. It’s a safe space for student athletes.
Curating a culture within an athletic community where mental health is treated like a muscle is the next step colleges need to take. Student-athletes take care of their bodies and their muscles so they can perform well. They need to do the same for their minds. The stigma surrounding mental health can be broken down by student-athletes talking about their experiences and opening up the conversation in a safe environment. Creating a safe environment is where schools and the NCAA need to start.
Emily Fedor is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine.
Header Photo Courtesy of Emily Fedor.