Stress impacting college student-athletes at increasing levels
Updated: Feb 2
Brooklynn Barton, a former student-athlete at the College of Charleston, found herself drowning in school work and faced pressures from everywhere to be the best. Her sophomore year she began to realize the pressures of being a student-athlete.
“It was like a roller coaster,” she said. “I would say my sophomore year was like the lowest my mental health has ever been. My mental health went down a lot. I had so much on my plate to juggle.”
Barton would first try doing activities such as going on walks and putting her phone down now and then. But she would be unable to bring herself up from this very low point by just calming herself down.
“At first, I would try to calm myself down and tell myself that I would get better down the road. I would always try and go on walks, or put down my phone, and try to relax myself and not do anything,” she said. “When it got really bad, I had to go to a counselor because I didn’t know how to maintain positive mental health and properly calm myself down. It was never the right way, I thought it was, to have a good mindset with mental health.”
We’ve seen how mental health affects athletes across all levels. Gymnastics phenom Simone Biles put it on display for the entire world to see during the 2021 Summer Olympics when she suddenly dropped out of the team competition, citing mental health as the reason. This started a public conversation about mental health among athletes and others in the extreme spotlight. Many other current and former athletes rallied behind her and supported the decision to withdraw from the most public stage.
But even at the collegiate level, the stress on student-athletes is very real and the impact on their mental health needs attention.
In a Cleveland Clinic health blog, the writer notes that athletes often carry a larger-than-life persona in the public eye. "They’re regarded as modern-day warriors, competitors who bravely push past obstacles and adversity in the pursuit of victory."
But this larger-than-life role can be taxing - especially to a college student.
When you walk around a college campus, you’ll notice the faces of many student-athletes plastered all over. As a student, faculty, or alumni, you receive emails about upcoming sporting events and tailgates, showing photos of the athletes in action. But behind these smiles some of these student-athletes are suffering, not just physically but mentally as well.
The most common mental health problem is depression, but other common issues include eating disorders, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.
For student athletes, depression and/or anxiety is usually the mental health culprit, but the problem is often that they feel like they don’t have anyone to talk to about or the stigma that surrounds student-athletes. It’s time we start talking about mental health among student-athletes.
Stigma of mental health
There’s long been a stigma surrounding mental health regardless of who the person is, however, in sports it that stigma is pushed more. Athletes are displayed to the public as perfect and never having anything wrong. They are displayed as being strong in all areas and not as weak.
In the article “Let’s Talk About the Quiet Crisis in College Sports: Mental Health,” Eric Lindberg talks about the reputation that athletes get. He also mentions how everyone, including the athletes themselves, put performance over mental and personal growth.
“But that superhero mentality, the belief that athletes can’t show weakness, plagues more than professional sports...Coaches, parents, and athletes themselves increasingly emphasize performance rather than the personal growth and character development that builds a foundation for well-being, fewer mental health challenges, and more consistent success,” he says. Society has focused more on gaining achievements and being recognized for things rather than focusing on mental health. The recognition and awards bring good feelings but won’t mean much to the athlete struggling with anxiety or depression. . For student-athletes, focusing on practice and performance all the time in all areas they are needed in, there is no time for focusing on mental health.
The mental health stigma hits harder in the male population of athletes. Morgan Benz, former CofC women’s soccer player, sports psychologist, and life counselor, talked about the stigma with mental and the male population of athletes.
“There is definitely still a stigma around mental health, particularly within the male population,” Benz said.
“I think being an athlete comes with this stigma that you are unstoppable, untouchable, and really powerful. So, if you have mental health issues, then all that goes out the window. I think that’s what they think, which is not true, but that’s why a lot of athletes are not willing to get help.” - Morgan Benz, sports psychologist
This is true when it comes to mental health and student-athletes. They are told that they need to be the strongest and if they have to get help then they are seen as weak.“I do, I definitely do. I think there’s just a level of embarrassment and shame, so that’s why they lie because they do not want to be seen as weak,” Benz says. "Because that’s a perception that exists. That stigma is still there of being seen as weak and that’s why they lie.”
Mental health has had ay stigma of personal weakness surrounding it for years and is why so many athletes won’t get the help they need. They suffer mentally and can’t function in their sport. If they aren’t mentally healthy, they cannot expect to be emotionally and physically healthy as well.
Mickey Dougherty, a current student-athlete on the Beach Volleyball team and the mental health awareness leader on the SAAC board, recognized this.
“I just think that mental health is super important for student-athletes. We are always talking about the physical aspect and how to take care of our bodies, but no one emphasizes the mental aspect. Mental Health is the basis of our sport. Mental Health has a lot more influence on sports and athletes than people would think of,” she says.
She is right about how we are always focused on the physical part. The article by Health Essentials mentions how a distracted mind can be dangerous to not only themselves but to others as well.
“Sometimes, a change in an athlete’s mental state may just result in a poor score or performance. Other times, a distracted mind could be dangerous. Being mentally distracted can possibly be detrimental to an athlete’s life.”
Athletes spend most of their time training and exercising but not enough time focusing on the mental part, which plays a vital role in how an athlete performs. So, when the mental part is not taken care of, the athlete falls apart over time in his/her physical performance, increasing the odds of getting injured.
Pressure high among student-athletes
Student-athletes face pressures from all areas of life. From their sport, they are expected to make all practice times—whether those be early in the morning or during the day, perform well during practice, games, and tournaments. If the student-athlete has any leadership roles on the team then they are expected to lead and do their part as well.
From school and their classes, they are expected to show up to all classes on time, turn in assignments on time, study for tests and other homework. They also experience some pressures from their social life. They are expected to show up to social events and parties with their friends.
Separate from each other these don’t seem like a lot but piled on top of each other. They even increase and become more difficult to manage as the years go by. School is the area that demands more attention from athletes as they begin to declare majors and minors.
The number of pressures student-athletes face and the time they have to complete their homework each day increases an athlete’s level of stress.
“Student-athletes are often subjected to a substantial amount of pressure, having to successfully balance their academic studies with their sporting commitments. This greater level of stress experienced by student-athletes may in part be due to the decreased amount of time that they are warranted to complete the increased responsibilities placed upon them,” she says.
Dougherty said being far from home and not being able to see her family was stressful her freshman year.
“I came here freshman year and I moved 3,000 miles from home, and with that, being a student-athlete, with the school it was such a big change,” she said.
She’s not the only one who has suffered from being homesick and not being able to visit a weekend due to parents not being in the same state or less than a three-hour drive away. Dougherty mentions how the pressures increase.
“Being an upperclassman, you are looked up to and you’re supposed to be the better one. You’ve been there for many years before being a freshman so that’s hard as well because not only are you supposed to be the better one… Also as you get older classes are getting harder and you have to start to figure out what you want to do after college,” she says.
Brooklynn Barton talks about the continuous pressures she faced during her time as an athlete. She says how she struggled with getting enough sleep, maintaining good grades, and competing well all the time.
“I would say maintaining good grades on top of competing, like competition. Getting enough sleep. I also felt the pressure of getting to bed early so we could perform to the best of our ability at practice and competitions. We kind of had the pressure of performing to the best of our abilities not only as individuals but as a family as well.” - Brooklyn Barton, student athlete
Getting enough sleep is important and is one of the many things that people tell student-athletes when they first come in, but how should they do that when they have all these early practice times, late classes, and everything in between, and still try and find time to do homework. It’s hard to do.
Barton said that sometimes she’d be up until 2 a.m. and then have to wake up in time for 6 a.m. practice.
With so many outside pressures it can be hard to manage them all. Not everyone struggles with the management of these pressures, but most do. They don’t have time to do everything, which transfers into their sport and causes them to perform at a level they aren’t expected to be at.
How pressure impacts mental health
Student-athletes face a lot of pressure from all areas of life. This can affect their mental health a lot in negative ways trying to meet all those expectations. As CofC’s athletic life counselor, Benz gets athletes recommended to come to her if they need further help outside of the times that she can come in at. She noticed that performance was the biggest pressure on student-athletes.
“Well, the biggest pressure I’ve seen would be with performance,” Benz said. “To be completely honest, that pressure isn’t typically put on by others. Like, if I don't perform then I am not worthy…”
Athletes strive for perfection and are taught to reach all their goals without hardly any flaws. If they don’t reach that level or goal, they have for themselves it becomes detrimental to their mental health.
“Your identity is an athlete, so when you’re not performing to where you would like to be you don’t feel valid, you don’t feel worthy of good things and that is probably the biggest stressor that I see from the athletes right now. As a student-athlete, you want to perform well in all aspects of life. Perfection is your goal, and sometimes that’s not attainable,” Benz says.
“Perfection is sometimes not attainable” is something that should be taught to all athletes. This pressure of perfection is something that they tend to put on themselves as Benz said. They are their biggest critics, especially as athletes. They expect to be perfect all the time when that can’t happen because they are human.
Barton said her biggest pressure was always trying to perform well, with the little sleep she had.
“I would say a lot of it had to do with trying to perform well at practice,” she said. “I felt like nights when I wouldn’t get enough sleep were when I was the hardest on myself because I was not performing where I should be at practice that next morning."
"Performing well, even at practice, is a struggle and can play a lot into our heads." - Brooklyn Barton, student-athlete
With all the pressures a student-athlete faces, it’s not unusual for some to fall into bad habits of coping skills - such as drinking.
“There’s a lot of accessibility to a lot of unhealthy things that can suppress our emotions and make us feel better immediately, but not long term,” Benz said. “But student-athletes have accessibility to things that are going to make them feel better temporarily.”
Mental health is an issue that needs to be addressed in student-athletes. They face many pressures and sometimes they need help. They shouldn’t be seen as weak for asking for help. Leaving the issue alone will eventually lead to bad things.
Barton gives some advice on how to manage all those pressures and what to do if it gets worse.
“Try not to think about everything that is going on,” Barton says. “For me, I would overthink everything, like what was coming up and what was going to be due, and that overwhelmed me. Just take it day by day with what’s going on and with what you have to get done. If it gets worse don’t be afraid to reach out for help.”