Mental health in sports: where is the line drawn between helping and hurting?

Exploring the epidemic of mental health issues prevalent in the athletic world.

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Grace Cornelius

The pressure on athletes has taken a toll on mental health. How can we help?

Katherine Bouma, Staff Writer

In the first five months of the year, at least five student athletes in the country have committed suicide, all of whom were women. The pressure and high expectations placed on collegiate athletes often diminishes the mental acuity of players, raising concerns among Westmont student athletes.

Westmont College’s athletic department is known for being a community of individuals committed to the excellence and growth of the body, mind and spirit. A first-year student on the women’s swim team shared the harsh reality that this excellence is pushed onto our athletes: “I think that it’s absolutely heartbreaking that this has become a larger issue, but as a freshman student athlete finally stepping into this world, I also have their perspective and see the hole you can fall into if you aren’t careful.

She continued, “There’s such a pressure of ‘we chose you’ that if you so much as have a hard day there seems to be backlash: ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed,’ along with indifference, until you prove your worth again. Whether it’s injuries, exhaustion or illness, it is frowned upon to not be okay 100% of the time and as a young adult with so much going on, that’s a lot to carry with you. You begin to create this habit of masking perfection to not disappoint anyone, leading everyone to believe there’s no cause for concern, but eventually that facade is going to crack.”  

The most common cause for diminishing mental health among student athletes is the expectation to be perfect while balancing academics, athletics and social life. Touching on managing a busy schedule as a collegiate athlete, the aforementioned first-year student and member of the swim team shares, “I’ve set myself boundaries within each week. I am an extreme organizer. At the beginning of each week, I make a checklist of everything I need to get done for each day as well as a master calendar with my entire swim schedule, school schedule, and personal schedule. I also create boundaries around social outings and have had to get really good at saying no, reminding myself that I’m sacrificing late night Blenders runs so that I can be at my best for my teammates.” 

Many athletes do not get the help they need because they are scared of the potential negative impact on their athletic performance. Questions of “am I worthy?” and “am I enough?” are brought up frequently. After copious amounts of added stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the extra pressure it put on athletes to stay in shape, Team USA released several mental tips for athletes to combat stress, anxiety and depression. The three most prevalent pieces of advice read below: 

The first tip is to get enough sleep. Student athletes with busy sports schedules on top of their rigorous academics, especially here at Westmont, sacrifice sleep for homework. Sleep helps to reduce stress, improve your mood and increase your energy. A Westmont athlete shared, “I spend most of my time sore and exhausted mentally and physically, this with the combination of school and classes makes stress and being overwhelmed a prevalent part of my life.”

The second recommendation is to develop a structure and a schedule for each day. With the commitment of the sport, you also have the commitment of staying on top of your schoolwork and working hard to maintain a balanced schedule. Simply planning out your day in a calendar or notebook can improve your motivation to complete your tasks and sort out your stress. 

The third and final piece of advice I find to be most obliging is to acknowledge your mental state. Athletes often forget that it is okay to feel overwhelmed by stress and exhaustion. It is easier to work through your problems if you recognize them first and foremost. A good caveat that I have heard often is to take note of the bad feelings around you but don’t let them sink in. Once you are able to pinpoint your feelings, you can work to mend them and put them in order. 

With the tragic reality of the mental illness in athletes around the globe, it’s clear that mental health has become one of the biggest concerns within colleges. However, social media has helped bring urgency to the issue. At Westmont, we need to make sure the silent cries of help from student athletes are heard. 

How much is too much?

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 You can read Team USA’s article, “7 Mental Tips for Athletes That Can Help Us All In This Time of Uncertainty” here.

Santa Barbara County Crisis Hotline: 211

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

SAFTY: Safe Alternatives for Treating Youth 24/7 Hotline 888-334-2777

Westmont Public Safety may be called 24 hours a day at (805) 565-6222

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