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Four Mental Health Tips for College Athletes

By Sydney Bauer

College comes with a lot of excitement and opportunity, but also a hefty dose of stress around academics, social life, and future planning. Student athletes have another layer of pressure added to that: balancing a full academic schedule with travel and the pressures of competing.

The pressures of college “are difficult to deal with even without athletics,” says James Borchers, MD, MPH, President of the U.S. Council of Athlete Health. “When you throw in athletics, it can be really difficult.” 

The good news is that there are many ways college athletes can prioritize their mental health and manage challenges so they are living their best lives on and off the field. 

“Athletes should understand that mental health and well-being are one and the same,” says Robin Scholefield, PhD, Director of Culture, Well-Being and Clinical and Sport Psychological Services at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Taking care of your mental health is a part of taking care of yourself and no different than going to the gym.” 

Here are four ways to take care of your mental health as a student athlete.

Find Your People

Having a supportive community is a proven way to improve your emotional well-being, and  isolation can be one of the most challenging parts of being a student athlete. Even with your teammates and what sometimes feels like the whole world paying attention to you, student athletes run the risk of not having a support system of people who understand their situation. 

“​​Having a support structure you feel comfortable with—is really important,” Dr. Borchers says. 

The first step is thinking about who your people are: teammates, friends, or family you feel comfortable with. It can be hard to share that you are struggling, but know that everyone needs connection. You may be surprised how willing—or even grateful—people are to talk with you, support you, and share their own challenges. 

Together you can feel understood, which is big all by itself. You can then troubleshoot challenges and plan enjoyable times together that are an essential part of your well-being. Think about whether you need this support to come from outside your athletic life or you’d like to build connections within your team. Both can be valuable. 

Find Your Professionals

In an ideal world, your coach is someone you can rely on to have your best interests at heart and a good listening ear. If that’s the case, your coach is a great person to go to when you are having a hard time, especially if it relates to issues with being on the team. 

If you’re not comfortable sharing struggles with your coach—or if a coach is adding to your stress—find other supportive adults in your world, such as athletic trainers or the team physician. 

You can also look beyond the locker room to mental health professionals in the school counseling center or off campus. When you find a therapist you connect with, you will have a safe, confidential space to share your thoughts and come up with ways to manage the stresses of school, athletics, and home life. 

Find out more about what therapy is and how it can work for you.

“One of the biggest barriers to making the most of mental health services is getting comfortable with being vulnerable,” Scholefield says. Athletes are not usually encouraged—or taught how—to be vulnerable. Taking the risk to share what you’re going through can have huge payoffs, however, and most athletes have gotten pretty good at taking risks and pushing themselves on the field. You can tap into that bravery and perseverance by deciding to get support and share what you’re going through.  

When you do, says Scholefield, “you will realize that a lot of how you’re feeling is a normal reaction to your circumstances. The earlier you can go in, the better.”

To find out what your campus offers, start with student health services, which should have plenty of staff ready to explain what is available.

Check out seven ways to find affordable therapy.

Outside school, there are national resources athletes can access, such as those available through Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Institute of Mental Health. The NCAA has a dedicated resource page for athletes seeking resources to support their mental health. 

Take Control of Social Media

One of the hardest things about being a student athlete is that your performances can be scrutinized in public. Test scores in organic chemistry aren’t dissected online, but a key play during a televised championship certainly is.

You don’t have control over that, but you do have control over how you engage with social media. Make use of tools that enable you to connect with the people you want to, prevent unwanted outsiders from weighing in, and help you set boundaries. 

  • Make your accounts private so you are sharing only with limited trusted friends. 
  • Block or unfollow anyone whose posts or responses add to your stress. 
  • Use screen time limits on devices to ensure you don’t spend too much time scrolling content that doesn’t make you feel good.
  • Turn off notifications so you can use social media when and where you want. 
  • Pay attention to which apps, posts, and people make you feel connected and supported and which ones leave you stressed or depleted. 
  • Opt for in-person connection, which will almost always feel better than connecting online and can be a good balance and reality check from what you see online. 
  • Celebrate other athletes’ success. It’s not a zero-sum game. Seeing others succeed does not make you a failure. 

More than anything, remember that strangers aren’t owed your time or thought processes, especially those who are working against your interests. Creating a boundary between yourself and them will be a big help in making social media a lot less stressful.

Explore What’s Important to You

One of the challenges of being a student athlete is that often the world sees you as a polished competitor who has it all figured out, when, in fact, you are in a major developmental phase just like any other college student. You are still learning about yourself and what you want from life.  

The people around you—family, coaches, your school community—may have all kinds of ideas about what your future should look like, but they are not you. 

Remind yourself: 

  • It’s your life. 
  • It’s totally normal not to know what comes next. 
  • You can change your focus if it no longer feels good to you. 
  • You have your whole life ahead of you to find your place and purpose. 

“Having those stirrings that there’s more to life and I want to explore it while I’m in college is absolutely normal,” Scholefield says.

Athletics may seem like it always comes first when you have a team counting on you, but it is OK, normal, and a really good idea to explore other options in life. The reality is that the vast number of college athletes do not turn pro. Enjoy your relationship with your sport and your team for what it is right now, and take the time to seek out as many opportunities for self-discovery as you can. Giving yourself permission to figure out what you want off the playing field is just as—if not more—important.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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