Pressure to perform: Mental health and student-athletes

By Sierra Goodwill

Wake up, lift, go to class, attend practice, study, eat, sleep. Rinse and repeat.

That’s the hectic lifestyle of a college student-athlete. These rigorous schedules leave limited time for socializing, alone time, or extracurricular activities. The pressure to excel at everything and be everywhere for teammates, family and friends can serve as the perfect storm of conditions leading to mental health problems.

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According to the NCAA, 30 percent of student-athletes self-report that they are consistently overwhelmed. The head coach of the Quinnipiac University women's soccer team, Dave Clarke, said he sees the psychological impact on over scheduled and overwhelmed athletes all the time.

“It’s always been there, but it’s become more and more of an openly discussed topic,” he said. “It’s not like all of a sudden there’s more players or people being diagnosed with mental health problems, but it’s just more acceptable to talk about and discuss.”

Clarke, who has an educational background and has taught special education courses at Quinnipiac, said that there’s only so much he can do for a player who is struggling mentally. However, he makes sure there is always someone around his team who has the ability to identify and treat his athletes.

“You notice differences in moods, but I’m not qualified to pinpoint anything in particular,” Clarke said. “We do have people on staff who are more trained in that area, so I think there are people who are constantly looking out for red flags – whether that’s observational, on social media or their behaviors.”

Becky Carlson, the head coach of the three-time national champion women’s rugby team at Quinnipiac, takes discussing mental health issues with her team seriously to ensure their comfort in disclosing whether or not they’re struggling.

However, she doesn’t necessarily see the same initiative from other coaches at the university.

“I always ask, ‘Do we just talk about this more than everybody else?’ I just don’t hear about it from other teams,” Carlson said. “But it’s not a thing that coaches want to share because I think they feel like that means they’re failing if they do talk about the fact that they have a kid who’s struggling.”

Carlson has observed the benefits of an open dialogue about mental health, and that's why she favors collaboration with her colleagues about it.

“Then I would know that I’m not by myself,” Carlson said. “I know that there are athletes on other teams that are struggling for a fact, but nobody talks about it. Addressing it in a group setting would be fine, but a team is only as responsive as a coach is willing to follow up on it.”

The NCAA reports that just 73 percent of student-athletes believe their coach cares about their well-being. That means 27 percent of student-athletes aren’t getting the support they need from a person they are seeing nearly every day.

“The role has evolved so much from being a coach to being so many more things now,” Carlson said. “I have kids that would rather come in my office to talk rather than go over to the counseling center and talk. They want to talk to people they can trust and that they’re around all the time.”

An athlete at Quinnipiac who did not want to be identified, said coaches often fail to realize that there may be more than a physical issue with an athlete.

“We’re human. Mental health issues affect more than just our performance; they affect our day to day lives and our ability to function,” the student-athlete said. “It’s very important that the coaches understand that the players might be dealing with something and that needs to be taken into account at all times.”

Carlson said the protocol for self-reporting mental illness makes it difficult for players to understand why coaches may not be aware or even know how to handle such conditions. She wants to do what she’s taught and told to do, but without giving her players the cold shoulder and coming across unsupportive or not understanding.

“Their protocol is to pick up the phone and let someone know,” she said. “If someone comes to me with a major issue, the last thing I’m going to do is pick up the phone and turn my back on them. You can’t actually create solutions for what the athletes are dealing with if you don’t know what they’re dealing with. And the people that create the rules and training don’t deal with the athletes directly, so you’re missing a crucial piece.”

Clarke pointed to the importance of familiarity with an athlete when that athlete exhibits unusual behavior that may suggest a mental health issue is emerging.

“Ultimately, they want to trust somebody,” he said. “A lot of the time they just want someone to listen to them. But it comes to a point where it’s not my area of expertise and when a player needs help, guidance and input, they need it from a professional.”

When it comes time for that professional help, Quinnipiac relies on mental health experts who are able to assist athletes.

Kerry Patton, Executive Director of Health and Wellness, is a licensed therapist who also oversees the counseling center at the university. She has noted some trends amongst student-athletes seeking help for mental health issues.

“Transitioning as a freshman, transitioning as a Division I athlete, and our athletes are also from all over the world so managing the stress and emotions they may be feeling with the change in their culture or environment,” Patton said. “I think it’s an extremely challenging job that they have to balance being a student-athlete and managing their personal needs, academic rigors and their travelling.”

Anxiety is a mental disorder that is not only becoming more prevalent in society in general, but also among college athletes. According to the NCAA, data from national surveys show that more than 30 percent of student-athletes have experienced overwhelming anxiety.

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Patton said she thinks much of that is related to the pressure to perform.

“Some of the athletes’ anxiety is coming from their performance or because they’re coming from being number one on their team for so many years and then they come here and they’re with everyone else who is top notch,” she said.

That is why she is working diligently with the university to create a position for a counselor who works solely with the athletic department. That way, the players can get advice from a therapist with expertise in handling the types of situations that student-athletes go through.

“We are in very deep discussions about hopefully having someone just for athletics, like a sports psychologist, and someone who has the experience working with student-athletes because they do have some different needs,” Patton said. “I think more student athletes might utilize that if they know it’s just for them.”

This personalized treatment option aims to give coaches and players confidence in knowing that a trained therapist is available to discuss issues that are specific to athletes.

But there is still work to do beyond hiring a therapist.

“I think it’s just continuing education and trying to stay ahead of the times,” Clarke said.  “And that’s not just with mental health, that’s also strength and conditioning and technology. You want to be progressive and know how to approach certain situations. Maybe there’s a trigger there with the sport – the expectation, the relationship – you just don’t know. So the more we continuously get educated on that then we’re doing the right thing.”

Ending the stigma around mental health is something that is talked about often, but Carlson wants to see it put into action.

“It comes down to societal expectations and athletes have always been raised and told to suck it up because they’re here to play a sport,” she said. “We’re looking it as more of a whole and how you play on the field also has a major correlation with how you’re doing off the field.”

Another student-athlete who did not want to be identified said the pressure to be strong is intense, but the ability to be honest and comfortable in sharing concerns would be useful.

“It’s overcoming that stigma and being able to come out as a student-athlete and say ‘I’m dealing with a mental health issue and I need help,’” the athlete said. “And that’s the challenge that we face.”

Both Clarke and Carlson said they see social media as a driver of mental health issues because of the elevated expectations these applications generate to present perfection.

“It’s no different than we see in everyday life where people talk about what they post on social media – the great cars, nice houses and vacations. If you don’t post that, is your life worthwhile?” Clarke said. “It’s the same with sports. Very rarely do we see people posting about bad performances, losses, goals given up or sitting on the bench. We never see a sticker that says ‘My daughter is a B student and I’m proud of her!’ It’s always honor student or A student. So there’s a perception of what a good player is based on social media versus the reality of actually performing on the field.”

Physical requirements aside, one in four student-athletes report being exhausted from the mental demands of their sport. A less judgmental and a more relaxed competitive space outside of social media for athletes to find release is imperative.

“It’s easier to not talk about it,” Carlson said. “I think mental health has to do with ego, too. It’s very hard to admit that you have a problem or are struggling with something. We work really hard to create an atmosphere that we’re all in this together.”