Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Health: Mental Toughness Can Include Asking For Help

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As high level athletes, we are supposed to have this internal drive that keeps us hungry and pushing for more. We always ask more of ourselves, of our bodies, and of our minds. We push through pain, through fatigue, through hurt, through disappointment. We are supposed to be mentally tough to complete the jobs we have set out to do. That’s how you reach your goals. That’s how you win championships. But how do you push through the pain when your mind is the thing that’s hurting?

This is what Division I basketball player, Sienna Durr shared about adjusting to the news that sports would be canceled in March 2020 due to COVID-19. We know that athletes have faced significant setbacks in their regular training and competitive schedules over the past year. How would they deal with these unexpected setbacks to their athletic careers and reframe their goals in sports and beyond? How would they mourn the temporary or permanent loss of their athlete identity?

Student-athletes strive for perfection both on and off the court. We compete on the field and in the classroom. This desire for perfection can really begin to take a toll on our mental health and wellbeing as student-athletes. We are taught very early on that to be successful as elite athletes, we must be mentally tough. We should be able to push through the pain and “suck it up” to accomplish our goals. This need for perfection and mental toughness leads many athletes, and the sports world in general, to see struggles with mental health as something for the weak. The stigma attached to mental health needs to be dismantled in order for student-athletes to openly and honestly address their own experiences. 

So much about being an athlete is the absolute opposite of the tenets that we promote when we talk about caring for your mental health: We encourage young people to reach out and open up to others, that it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to not be okayAs an athlete, you are trained to be physically and emotionally tough. Don’t show pain, it is a sign of weakness. So how do we help athletes care for their mental health while still helping them be as emotionally tough as they need to be to excel in their sport? Can athletes have it both ways? Can you be both emotionally resilient but also know when to reach out when it becomes too hard for you to handle?

The answer is yes. 

The problem with these phrases and quotes related to athletic achievement is that they are harmful. If you don’t listen to your body and give it rest when it’s needed, you will subject yourself to injury. The consequences will catch up. Very similarly, not dealing with mental health struggles can be a way of pushing away problems that will eventually creep back into your life again. 

Reaching out helps. 

There has to be a way to talk about emotional struggles in a normative way that doesn’t end up sidelining you from competition. A quarter (25%) of female student-athletes and 19% of male student athletes had struggles with depression in 2020, according to one study. One in ten student athletes reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function most every day, according to a different study during the same time range. 

These numbers are high and show that more often than not, student-athletes are dealing with something mental health related. It’s time to address these issues and no longer sweep them under the mat. 

Below are some tips for student-athletes who may be struggling with their mental health or looking for additional support for their well-being: 

  • There are many supportive services on college campuses that can help. Many schools employ staff dedicated to sport psychology, academic counseling, and support services for student-athletes. Some of these roles are assigned to sports teams and athletic departments, and some of them sit outside of sports. Know these mental health and support services and take advantage of them.
  • Talk to other athletes through peer mentoring or athlete support groups who might be struggling with a variety of challenges like you. Talking to other athletes who live similar lives as you might help you see that others are in your shoes and dealing with similar struggles.
  • Remember that mental health is health. It is all connected and when one area of your health is untreated or ignored, it can have a similar ripple effect to an untreated injury. Take care of your body and take care of your mind. 
  • Practice meditation, positive self-talk, and healthy sleep habits. The life of a student-athlete can be described as a balancing act. Simply put, student-athletes have crazy schedules. With so many things on our plates, we can begin to lose our sense of balance. This juggling act leads to increased levels of stress in both academics and athletics. The stress associated with our intense balancing act, especially during times of high academic stress, can lead to decreased sleep quality and levels of energy. Furthermore, those factors have been found to increase susceptibility to injury and illness. Practicing healthy habits and self care on a regular basis provides a strong foundation which will help within and beyond athletics. 
  • Talk to your coach or a trusted adult on the coaching staff. Nervous that your coach will not respond well? Talk to the assistant coach, trainer, or team captain first. Then work your way up to the head coach. When you talk to them, present a combination of struggles and potential solutions as well. 
  • Remember why you are an athlete and doing the sport you love. Try to reconnect with the joy that you had when you first began to practice your sport. You can do this by looking at old photographs of you in uniform, talking to your first coaches and teachers about you as a young athlete, and sharing stories with loved ones. Even mentoring young athletes can help to reinvigorate your love for the sport and can help to remove the stress and struggle from your own experience. 

Consider these additional tips from professional athletes.

In the end, a protected body and mind leads to better athletic performance and a healthier human overall. 

Always remember:

It is not weak to focus on your mental health.

It is not weak to take a break.

It is not weak to admit you are struggling.

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