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Mental health resources for student athletes

This is an excerpt from Administration of Intercollegiate Athletics-2nd Edition by Robert Zullo & Erianne Weight.

First and foremost, student-athletes are students in a higher education setting. As they pursue their education, they must juggle the demands of athletics as a prominent component of their daily schedule. In light of the considerable time they invest in their practice, competition, and travel schedules, they may benefit from specialized academic support services. Academic support services for student-athletes can vary from university to university; generally, however, they may include subject tutors, academic mentors, study groups, learning specialists, and academic advisors (Broughton & Neyer, 2001; Comeaux, 2013; Covell & Barr, 2010; Wolverton, 2008). Academic support personnel for student-athletes are critically important because they help these uniquely situated students navigate their educational experience, balance the demands of academics and athletics, and prepare themselves for life after their playing career ends. These personnel also help student-athletes meet academic eligibility requirements.

There is another dimension of the mental aspect of the student-athlete experience, and this one goes beyond the pursuit of an academic skill set. This dimension is addressed by sport psychology, which focuses primarily on strengthening performance by equipping athletes with strategies to help their mental self-talk work for them rather than against them (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). An athletics administrator may hire a sport psychology consultant (SPC) as a part-time or full-time member of the holistic care team.

For example, let’s imagine that the student-athlete described in the introductory scenario consistently experiences extreme frustration or anxiety upon perceiving that they have made a mistake. An SPC is trained to help the student-athlete manage such feelings through appropriately individualized measures. The consultation can extend to helping the student-athlete manage mental self-talk relating to technique. Thus, when a student-athlete experiences a slump in performance, an SPC can provide an alternate perspective and voice that may help the student-athlete internalize the situation more effectively in order reach to their greatest athletic potential.

Sport psychology entails much more than what is briefly mentioned here. It is an academic discipline with stringent professional standards and credentialing (Association for Applied Sport Psychology, 2013a, 2013b). The current trend is to integrate sport psychology professionals into intercollegiate athletics departments to facilitate holistic care for student-athletes. The University of Southern California is a national leader in sports psychology. Its athletics department has 10 trained professionals providing individual therapy, team meetings on dynamics and performance, educational sessions with coaches and staff (on such topics as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention, substance abuse, body image, eating disorders, healthy relationships, and the psychological effects of an injury) and addressing urgent issues (Lindberg, 2021). Empowering student-athletes is a goal because peak performance in life starts with good mental health.

Within the wider field of mental health, there is a growing trend toward developing personalized approaches to prevention and care. Rather than assuming that everyone would benefit from lying on a couch for 45 minutes free-associating about dreams, there is a strong move toward adapting mental health interventions that are more reflective of the diverse experiences and backgrounds of the people seeking treatment.

Ivan Tchatchouwo, CEO, The Zone, and Dr. Adam Brown, clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology, The New School for Social Research (2022)

Student-Athletes and Mental Health

A 2022 study by the NCAA indicated that student-athletes continue to face challenges with mental health, including mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression at levels higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic (Johnson, 2022). Responses from nearly 10,000 student-athletes indicated knowledge about where to go on campus for mental health support, but almost 50 percent of the respondents said they felt uncomfortable doing so. Continuing outreach to student-athletes and their athletics programs is important to bridge the gap between knowing where resources are located and a willingness to utilize those resources. This outreach begins with the athletics department’s top administration and continues to coaches embracing conversations about student-athlete’s mental well-being. Coaches aspire for their team to achieve peak performance in competition, but that can be difficult if team members feel mentally exhausted, are sleep deprived, face overwhelming anxiety or sadness, or have a sense of loss or hopelessness. Coaches and their support staff can play an important role in helping student-athletes as mental health awareness becomes more commonplace at all levels of intercollegiate athletics.

More Excerpts From Administration of Intercollegiate Athletics 2nd Edition