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Student-athletes are often under an increased level of stress, particularly compared to students who are not participating in athletics or other extracurricular activities. Not only are student-athletes balancing busy schedules that include class, homework, practice, and events, but they also have to manage the pressure of maintaining scholarships, improving academic performance, and meeting the expectations of their coach and teammates.

Recognizing this, it is crucial to prioritize student-athlete mental health and ensure all student-athletes get the comprehensive mental health and wellness services they need.

Importance of Mental Health in Student-Athletes

Student-athletes experience a different range of pressures during their college years, largely because they are balancing a full academic workload along with a significant commitment to a particular team or sport. While student-athletes are typically driven and passionate individuals, their mental health plays a powerful role in their ability to fully enjoy their college experience.

Defining Mental Health for Student-Athletes

The culture surrounding collegiate sports has not always emphasized mental health, according to Kaiser Permanente. In fact, many athletes have been directed to suppress their emotions and overcome their feelings in order to focus solely on their athletic performance and physical health.

Today, however, most athletes know it is necessary to prioritize their mental health and emotional well-being to consistently improve athletic performance and achieve their goals.

The Role of Sports in Mental Health

Fortunately, involvement in sports has been shown to improve mental health in people of all ages. As noted by Halifax Health, sports can improve mental health by:

  • Reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Providing people with an interconnected community that can reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness.
  • Reducing the risk of a student becoming prone to reckless behaviors.
  • Improving an individual’s confidence, resilience, and empathy.

Impact of Poor Mental Health on Athletic Performance

Although participating in collegiate athletics could provide students with a much-needed mental health boost, poor mental health may actually have a detrimental impact on athletic performance. Per Kindbridge Behavioral Health, mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or excessive stress can make it difficult for student-athletes to focus, apply themselves, or remain engaged in the game.

Case Studies of Mental Health Affecting Athletic Performance

According to a study published in the Sports Health medical journal, athletes who are experiencing the symptoms of depression or anxiety may be more prone to injury. Plus, if they are injured, they may face a longer recovery process or a higher risk of leaving the sport altogether.

This research goes on to exemplify this effect of mental health conditions on physical performance by looking at Canadian swimmers who competed in trials for the 2012 Summer Olympics. With nearly 70% reporting at least one major depressive episode in the months beforehand, these athlete mental health issues signified a strong correlation with performance failure. Similarly, another study of elite athletes who experienced stress, depression, and performance failure also exhibited an association between mental illness and greater physical ailments, disordered eating habits leading to nutritional deficiencies, and ultimately impaired performance.

The Interplay of Mental Health and Physical Fitness

While the COVID-19 pandemic heightened feelings of stress and anxiety among student-athletes, the data shows that the situation is improving when it comes to student-athletes and mental health. Mental health concerns among student-athletes has dropped across all divisions since the onset of the pandemic, according to the NCAA. Additionally, the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health concerns is slowly but surely falling away, as more student-athletes are reporting they are aware of resources and would be willing to utilize them.

How Schools Can Support Student-Athlete Mental Health

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to support their student-athletes and provide them with resources to help them balance their physical and emotional well-being along with their academic and athletic pursuits.

Some steps that schools can take include the following:

Implementing Adequate Mental Health Resources

Mental health resources should be readily available to all students on a college campus. By offering both in-person and remote counseling services — as well as creating programming designed to raise awareness about mental health concerns on college campuses — schools are better equipped to meet the needs of their students.

Encouraging Open Conversations About Mental Health

University administrators, professors, and coaches can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health by being as open and honest about the topic as possible. Sharing information and resources may help student-athletes feel like they can discuss their own experiences.

Role of Coaches and Staff in Boosting Mental Health

Student-athletes inherently look to their coaches for guidance, not only on the field but also in all aspects of their lives. Coaches and athletic staff members who are supportive, encouraging, and willing to help can play a powerful role in reducing the stigma surrounding student-athletes and mental health to ensure they all get the care they need.

Seeking Help for Mental Health as a Student-Athlete

If you are a student-athlete dealing with mental health issues, you need to know when and where to find help.

When to Seek Help

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should seek help if:

  • You no longer feel interested in your chosen sport or motivated to play.
  • You are not eating or sleeping regularly.
  • Your academic performance is suffering.
  • You are feeling excessively angry or aggressive.
  • You feel hopeless or helpless.

Where to Find Help

Many colleges (including Post University) offer specific mental health and wellness services and departments, available to all students and student-athletes.

Overcoming the Stigma Associated With Seeking Help

There is no shame in asking for help. Knowing where and how you can confide in a trusted professional can help you take control of your life and allow you to enjoy your time as a student-athlete once again.

How Student-Athletes Can Improve Their Own Mental Health

In addition to seeking counseling or other types of mental health treatment, you could implement lifestyle changes that help improve your mental health.

Self-Care Strategies for Student-Athletes

As a student-athlete, you may practice self-care by:

  • Enjoying nutritious and fulfilling meals on a regular basis.
  • Taking time to do things you enjoy outside of sports.
  • Creating a sleep routine that allows you to consistently get a full night’s rest.

Balancing Academics, Athletics, and Personal Life

Balancing academics, athletics, and personal life can be considerably challenging for student-athletes. To find that delicate sense of balance, you should be willing to ask your coach for help, create a schedule you can stick to, and collaborate with your teammates as you all find the best way to make the most out of your college experience.

Is Mental Health Less Important Than Athletic Performance?

Your mental and physical health should be top priorities as a student-athlete. When you address your mental health concerns and work to improve your overall well-being, you will find that your athletic performance improves naturally.

Learn More About Mental Health and Wellness Services at Post University

At Post University, we recognize that numerous college students today face unique mental health concerns. As a result, we strive to provide all students — including student-athletes — with the comprehensive care they need. Our Mental Health and Wellness Services department offers both counseling and outreach services to on-campus and online students.

Request more information about student services at Post University today.


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