Access to mental health services can help curb anxiety, depression, and stress for overworked athletes
On a surface level, the culture, media, and excitement surrounding college sports are palpable at campuses all across the nation. Students love their athletes, mascots, and sporting events, which provide fun activities for regular students, and sometimes create large revenue margins for the academic institutions they attend. At some schools, student-athletes are even treated like celebrities, with large fan followings and people often asking them for a quick picture.
Some people envy the lives of these student-athletes, who are widely revered as representatives of their schools, but underneath the surface, there is much more that goes into being a student-athlete than the recognition they earn from their peers. Student-athletes have extreme time commitments to both their athletics and education, causing their schedules to be packed with little time to rest or socialize with friends. While most student-athletes love the sporting lifestyle, these demanding schedules and performance benchmarks make their lives stressful on a day-to-day basis. To put this situation into perspective, a 2010 NCAA study found that college basketball players spent about 35 hours a week on academics, and 36 hours on athletics. In the United States, the standard workweek is roughly 40 hours, meaning student-athletes are working near the level of two full-time jobs.
Confluent with the stress of academics and athletics is the new social environment college freshmen are thrown into. For most students, these years are their first living away from their parents, and they must quickly adapt to a new environment and social situation. The college years are a critical time in the mental health of a developing adult. Mental support in this time is crucial for the success of the student, particularly one that is also a highly skilled and committed athlete. Most coaches and athletic organizations are great at making sure their athletes are in tip-top physical condition but are less concerned with the mental condition of their athletes. While some collegiate programs have invested in sports psychologists, many have not met a standard that ensures the well-being and elite performance of their athletes.
Athletes perform their best under mild stress, but too much can cause them to reach a breaking point and tire them out. Additionally, anxiety can cause athletes to lose focus during games, due to a physiological response to situational tension, according to a 2015 study by the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports, and Health. This study advises athletes to practice numerous techniques to reduce psychological tension and emotional overload.
We have seen examples in the public eye of mental health affecting play on the court recently, with NBA star Kevin Love suffering from a panic attack in the middle of a game. With support from the basketball community, Love eventually went on to speak out for mental wellness, and detailed his trials and tribulations in multiple essays written for The Players’ Tribune. Love has also recently provided financial backing for Coa, a gym with a focus on mental and emotional fitness.
The lack of proper wellness care for athletes allows room for common psychological disorders to take hold over athletes. “Negative external or internal psychological factors can lead to mental blocks … poor performance and, at times, injuries to the athlete,” writes Laura M. Miele, Ph.D. These conditions range
from anxiety disorders to substance abuse and depression, all of which decrease the performance peaks of athletes.
While typical wellness methods remain helpful, they are not the most accessible options for students. Some students may be dissuaded from visiting a mental health professional for a wide array of reasons. For example, there is a social stigma surrounding mental health care, as well as stereotypes concerning overbearing psychologists. Often, those who are depressed may feel tired, and not even want to get up and walk to their therapist's office. A study comparing the wellness of research institutions and liberal arts schools found that at both institutions, “wellness information via a stand-alone wellness center, classroom instructions, and/or website, the message may not be reaching the intended audience.” In order to make sure more student-athletes use these programs designed to help them, we must increase their accessibility.
If college athletic programs want to get the most out of their athletes they must prioritize their mental health to the same degree they prioritize the physical health of their athletes. This involves putting money and supplies behind efforts that make mental health care more accessible to their students. Universities could also launch marketing campaigns that decrease the stigma surrounding mental health facilities and services.
Emerging wellness techniques like The Zone, a smartphone application designed to monitor the mental health and wellness of athletes, provide an active solution to a growing problem in many athletic programs. Putting wellness care into the pockets of student-athletes goes far to assist students with the development of wellness plans, and good habits. The Zone focuses on connecting athletes, coaches, and mental health professionals through an app that offers wellness suggestions, and lifestyle plans which prioritize the athlete. The Zone works to eliminate the accessibility issues of typical mental health services, in turn making it a potentially valuable asset for universities. With techniques that reduce the gap between student-athletes and health professionals, universities can help their athletes perform at a much higher level.
At the end of the day, it is at the discretion of institutions to make their wellness programs and services more accessible, but the evidence is clear that investment in these programs would lead to better outcomes on the court.