Are U.S. collegiate sports straining student athletes’ mental health?
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
by Sara Paetow
Sports can be fun, competitive, healthy, and stressful. But when is the stress too much for a young adult? Many college athletes have been playing since they were in eleme
ntary school, and now that they are in their 20s, some struggle to find the love for the sport they once had.
Many athletes in previous generations lived in a society that valued “toughing-it-out,”but today’s athletes are more aware of their mental health than ever before.
“There’s a level of stress and pressure to perform well, but I enjoy the cha
llenge to go out every day and try to perform,” said Reyne Smith, starting forward at the College of Charleston. “I try to find a balance between life and basketball.
Smith said he has worked on keeping his mental health in a good place.“I used to feel burned out at times,” Smith said, “but I’ve done a better job at listening to my body and mental health.”
Smith is an All-American who came to CofC to play basketball from Ulverstone Tasmania, Au
stralia. When asked how basketball is different in the United States, Smith mentioned that basketball is taught differently in the U.S. compared to Tasmania.
“Basketball is taught differently in different countries,” said Smith. “The U.S. is much different, mainly because it is much more fast-paced when it comes to the collegiate sports culture.”
Starting forward Babacar Faye believes that American basketball is “more focused on individualism, while the rest of the world is more about execution.”
Faye and Smith both said they have gained life skills through basketball.
“I'm learning about myself which is very important, I have learned most of my life through basketball,”
said Faye. “I'm willing to give everything except family to achieve my goals.”
College athletes are often willing to go to great lengths to follow their dreams and that can mean giving up other parts of their lives.Similar to Faye, Smith said he “gave up a chunk of social life for basketball.”
Sophomore guard Jack Miller also said he is willing to give up aspects of his life for basketball.
“Everything, I will do any and everything to get to my dream,” Miller said.
Most student athletes are trained at a young age to make a large commitment to their sport of choice, which can contribute to an imbalance.
Babacar Faye attended the NBA academy of Africa, an elite basketball development school that provides intense basketball training, so he understood early on the pressure on student athletes.
“I know about burn-out and I love the game of basketball and always will but I have feelings of burn-out due to the added stress of school on top of my sport,” Faye said. “I'm exhausted with practice four to six days a week and workouts and then my school schedule also. It’s really draining, and my sleep schedule is off.”
Sports psychologist and former major league baseball pitcher Bob Tewksbury notes that the stress for student athletes often starts in high school.
“The pressures of being a student athlete are immense. They don’t start in college. They start in high school, when they’re trying to get to college,” he told MetroWest Daily News.
An NCAA survey of student athletes showed that over a one-third of the respondents reported experiencing sleep difficulties, while more than a quarter reported feeling sadness and a sense of loss. One1 in 10 reported feeling so depressed it has been difficult to function "constantly" or "most every day."
Although all three players have a deep love for basketball, the pressure of doing school and playing sports is real.
While athletes are generally thought to be physically healthier than their peers, surveys have found that they are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses - and less likely to seek help. From a young age, athletes are trained to push through the pain and be “mentally tough.”
Beyond their athletic performance, people often fail to take into account everything else a student-athlete is responsible for getting done.
“My freshman year was especially difficult because I had a hard time adjusting to the fast pace of life in college as well as the workload,” Miller said, adding that he often rushes home from practice to shower and get started on homework, despite often being exhausted. “I fell behind on school because I focused on basketball and it caused mental health problems for me.”