Student-athletes not immune to mental health crisis

University of La Verne baseball players chat in the dugout in between innings of a recent game. Having strong connections with teammates is one of the many ways sports can have a positive effect on student-athletes’ mental health. / photo by Jack Janes
University of La Verne baseball players chat in the dugout in between innings of a recent game. Having strong connections with teammates is one of the many ways sports can have a positive effect on student-athletes’ mental health. / photo by Jack Janes

Jack Janes
Sports Editor

Waking up early in the morning, having classes from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., then heading to the weight room, then straight to practice until about 7 p.m., doing homework until the middle of the night, and repeating it all the next day. That is a typical day in the life of a student-athlete in college.

While some may see college athletes as leading charmed lives, being a college athlete comes with unique stressors and challenges, such as the pressure to perform, the risk of injuries, and the daily stress of not having enough time in the day to accomplish everything, amid the intense and demanding schedule of practice, play and school.

Research suggests that college athletes may be at greater risk of mental health challenges. According to a 2021 NCAA study, 85% of female and 95% of male student-athletes experience higher stress levels compared to 52% of non-student-athletes.

“There’s a lot of pressure to just live up to your potential,” former Santa Ana College baseball player and current Cal State Fullerton senior business major Josh Carrera said. “At the time, I was working for a scholarship, trying to make it a little easier for (my) parents, as much as possible. It’s hard.”

According to a 2023 National Library of Medicine report, 17% of college athletes polled reported depressive episodes and 22% reported anxiety disorders. The study also found that first-year student-athletes typically reported more symptoms of depression. 

The first year of college can be the hardest for everyone, and particularly for student-athletes because of the adjustments in their lives that need to be made and because they need to get accustomed to a whole new practice schedule with added responsibilities.

“Freshman year, from the start, you kind of feel flustered, and it’s pretty stressful because you’ve got to figure out how to do college, how to do your classes, how to do baseball,” current Cal State Fullerton sophomore left-handed pitcher Mikiah Negrete said. “And then a lot of schools demand study hall and all that, so by the end of it you’re giving 30 to 35 hours to baseball, working a full-time job while trying to figure out classes.”

Some colleges, including the University of La Verne, offer free counseling and therapy to their students, but with how hectic  student-athletes’ schedules are, most do not have the time in their day to utilize the help available. According to a 2019 report by Athletes For Hope, an non-profit organization that educates, encourages, and assists athletes in their efforts to engage with community and charitable causes, only 10% of college athletes with mental health conditions seek help.

“You don’t feel like you have time to go to this free therapy that’s being offered or anything like that,” Negrete said. “So it was something that would sit in the back of my mind, like maybe I should go do this. But I just felt like I didn’t have time.”

Physical and mental fatigue

The daily cycle of waking up early in the morning for weight training three-to-four days a week, then going to class, then going to practice from the early afternoon to night, then staying up late doing homework takes a toll on you both mentally and physically. Coaches and doctors often reiterate the importance of rest but student-athletes hardly ever get the chance to without falling behind in some area of their lives.

“I was running on two energy drinks and a coffee a day so that I could get probably three hours of sleep at night to get all the homework and everything else done,” former Westcliff University soccer player Taylor Gayer said.

Along with getting adequate sleep, coaches preach eating healthy and getting enough food so you have enough energy to get through the busy day. But with just how busy these days are, it can be difficult to eat the meals necessary to stay healthy.

“I would be going to class, trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich within 10 minutes, go hit the weight room, try and eat another sandwich while changing in the parking lot, getting ready to go on the field,” Carerra said. “Your body just gets super fatigued. It’s not easy at all.”

The physical fatigue that student-athletes endure can translate into mental fatigue, making it all the more easier for these athletes to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

The NCAA report also states that 38% of female and 22% of male student-athletes feel mentally exhausted on most days; and 28% of female and 19% of male student-athletes have difficulty sleeping.

According to a 2022 report from MedlinePlus, an organization that is a part of the National Library of Medicine, some of the prominent signs of over-exercising are fatigue, depression and having trouble sleeping, all of which are found among student-athletes.  

Bryce Martin played collegiate baseball at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia  and University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. He is currently a senior psychology major at University of Central Florida, and he is a mental health coach who works with high school and college-aged athletes as well as coaches. He said depression and anxiety are the most common issues that his clients tend to deal with.

“That’s the biggest thing that I see day to day,” Martin said. “Knowing what I’ve been through and the people I’ve talked with, all anxiety to me is focusing on the future and thinking about the future too much and not being present. Same thing with depression, which is like the antithesis of anxiety; being depressed is focusing on the past and things that you’ve done wrong.”

Staying in the present, however, is much easier said than done when the pressure to succeed in sports is so important to the athlete. Pressure from the sport itself, coaches and sometimes even parents can harm an athlete’s mental health.

“Honestly, I feel like I just never thought anything was good enough,” said Jordan Wood, former soccer player at University of Montana and Santiago Canyon College. “I feel like every practice, every coach’s opinion has kind of fed into my adult life now. With work, I feel like I have such high expectations for myself, and I feel like nothing’s ever good enough.”

Wood added that she was constantly stressed in college about staying on top of her grades, getting enough sleep and doing well in practices and games. And if she did not do well in soccer one day, she stressed out about the consequences of that the next day.

Coaches often tell players to never be satisfied with their results and to always want more to ensure that they can stay at the top of their game. But some take it to a point where athletes are left disappointed in themselves and discouraged.

“I think a lot of it was basically learning how to roll with the punches of never fully reaching that potential and nobody was ever happy with the performance,” Gayer said.

Injuries take emotional toll

Another reason why many student-athletes suffer from depression and or anxiety is because of physical injuries. With all of the work that athletes put into their sport, missing time with injuries can take a toll on an athlete’s mental health.

According to a 2023 study by MedRxiv, a preprint server for health sciences, “Injury is a common consequence of athletic performance and one that isolates student-athletes from their team, which could challenge their social support network or athletic identity.” 

“I felt like I’d be behind,” Wood said. “I felt like I didn’t want to rest. I didn’t want to take care of my body. I just wanted to go back and play because I didn’t want to be left behind. I wanted to make sure I got playing time. I wanted to make sure that I was still on top of my game.”

The pressure to not let your teammates and coaches down because you are hurt can also play a factor, athletes say. 

According to a 2011 study done by Rutgers University postdoctoral researcher Cory Haluska: “By not being able to play you feel as if you are letting your team down and what’s worse is that you also feel like you’re letting your teammates down. This mental burden has a major negative effect and could lead to depression which slows down the recovery time.” 

“Being asked, ‘can you still play?’ And that pressure to not disappoint those people there while also finding that balance of ‘hey, I am hurt, I can’t play’  but also you’re going to be letting the whole team down is what it was,” Gayer said.

Sports Can Also Help Mental Health

But the news regarding student-athletes’ mental health is not all bad. 

There are numerous mental health benefits to participating in intense daily exercise with a supportive team of peers.

According to a 2024 British Medical Journal study, walking or jogging at least two or three times a week can improve symptoms of depression by 63%, while taking antidepressants alone improves symptoms by only 26%. 

“Although light physical activity still provided clinically meaningful effects, expected effects were stronger for vigorous exercise,” the study found.

Some athletes say the rigorous daily practice also serves as a needed escape. 

“You can kind of turn your brain off when you go to practice,” Negrete said. “Even if you have that test tomorrow or if you have something going on at home or whatever it might be, it’s kind of nice. It is really nice just to have the ability to have the space where you can disconnect from the world a little bit and have your sport.”

Being able to have a section of their day carved out to do something they love, and to temporarily take their mind off of things that may be causing them stress, can help the student-athlete through hard times.

“Just being on the field, this is exactly what I want to be doing,” Carerra said. “This is the life, you’re playing college baseball, you can be a kid on the field. You’re so caught up in the classrooms and everything and then when you get out on the field, it’s like let me not think about all this stuff for a second.”

Another way being a student-athlete supports mental health is the built-in friendships that come along with being a team. Obviously you are not going to get along with every teammate you have, but more often than not, a student-athlete’s strongest friendships are teammates.

There are numerous examples of this, but one that grabbed recent headlines is the friendship of Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry and businessman Bryant Barr. 

A Medium article 2016 illuminated the duo’s close friendship that started as teammates at Davidson College, and how they have remained close all these years later and are now business partners despite both living vastly different lives.

“You won’t get that if you’re not playing college sports, just those connections and just meeting people like that,” Carerra said. “Ever since I stopped playing baseball, I haven’t really met new people. Pretty much all my friends that I hang out with today are from baseball.”

In some cases, student-athletes spend more time with their teammates than their own family because of how much time they spend at practice. When you spend up to 30 hours a week working hard with a team, you build unbreakable connections and friendships that can last a lifetime.

Life lessons through sports

Sports also teach life lessons that athletes can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Learning to deal with failure, working hard, how to work with a team, these are just a few things that being a college athlete can teach you.

“At the simplest form, learning more about yourself, learning how to compete, learning how to be a teammate, learning all those different things that if you just kind of sat in a classroom and did every day-to-day stuff, you don’t really get,” Martin said.

Failure is a part of life. But how you respond to failure is what makes people successful in their lives and in their careers.

“It also made me have thicker skin,” Wood said.Although it sucked going through all of that, it’s taught me a lot about how I problem solve. It’s taught me a lot about how I navigate things.”

Employers often favor former college athletes, who they can count on to perform under stress, problem solve and work well as part of a team, among others skills and discipline practiced on the field. 

“College athletes also know how to set goals and achieve them,” Washington Post sports columnist Fred Bowen wrote in his 2022 piece “Playing college sports is about life lessons more than championships.” 

“No athlete, no matter how talented, becomes great all at once,” Bowen wrote. “Getting better at a sport, or anything else, is a long process of making small improvements over time. Working on a crossover dribble, backstroke or backhand takes patience and determination.”

Additionally Bowen wrote that college athletes are set up to succeed post-athletic careers because of how they learned to work hard, time management, how to work in a team setting and how to deal with failure as student-athletes.

“The hard work, the time management, that sort of aspect of things, it really helped go straight into the workforce from that and being able to jump right into my job,” Gayer said. “I think also it’s taught me how to fly by the seat of my pants – you never knew what drills were going to be done.”

“In life, it’s taught me a lot,” Wood added. “It’s taught me how to work hard, it’s taught me how to time manage, it’s taught me a lot of lessons. A lot of my best friends have been from (soccer). So yeah, I personally wouldn’t change anything that I went through because I don’t think I would be the person I am today.”

Jack Janes can be reached at jack.janes@laverne.edu.

Jack Janes, a senior journalism major, is sports editor of the Campus Times and a staff writer for La Verne Magazine. He is also a staff photographer for both publications. He previously served as a Campus Times staff writer.

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