TheHopeLine: Mental Health & Student Athletes - No Sacrifice.

In case you missed it, Simone Biles blew up the conversation about mental health in athletes when she walked away from the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. Thanks to her and Naomi Osaka, who declined to participate in the French Open last year, many athletes finally feel free to discuss just how taxing athletics can be on your mental state, especially for those who are young and trying to balance school at the same time as they participate in sports. Before that, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps also opened up about his struggle with depression, adding yet another name to the list of elite athletes who battle with mental health issues.

It turns out that just because “exercise” is one the most frequently touted treatments for mental illness, from depression and anxiety to PTSD and Bipolar Disorder, doesn’t mean that exercise is always healthy. Nor does this mean that someone who exercises regularly due to school sports is immune to mental health challenges. In fact, there are several aspects of both high school and college sports that can trigger anxiety and depression, so it’s imperative that student-athletes and those who support them understand the importance of caring for their mental health.

How to Navigate Mental Health as a Student Athlete

The Pressure on a Student-Athlete

On top of everything that a typical student deals with, a student-athlete faces the added complication of balancing those challenges with the mental, emotional, and physical pressures of competitive sports. The amount of stress on student-athletes is enough to, quite frankly, floor almost any adult. Yet our high schools and colleges expect young athletes to be high achievers both on and off the court. Often student-athletes also rely upon their performance to secure funding for school, which is crucial to their future success but adds to the burden on their mental health.

Why You Should Care About Your Mental Health as a Student-Athlete

Sports psychologists have long talked about the importance of the link between mind and body. Whatever your sport is in school, your coach and teammates probably say things along the lines of “keep your eye on the ball,” “get your head in the game,” “don’t psych yourself out,” or “get out of your head.” All of these sayings are ways to address the anxiety that can occur when you’re actually playing your sport–overwhelming thoughts that can distract you from what you need to be doing on the playing field. If you don’t learn to take care of those anxious thoughts, your physical performance can suffer.

That can happen outside of the rink too! If you’re stressed about an exam, going through something difficult at home, or nervous about the next big match, but you aren’t taking care of your mental health, that stress can take a toll in every aspect of life, including your athletic performance. Things can really snowball from there, meaning the pressure from sports can negatively impact academics, which can then negatively impact your social life, which can then negatively impact sports again, and so on, in a vicious cycle. That leaves you struggling to succeed in even one area, let alone all of them.

But there is hope. You can truly succeed in your chosen sport by making sure your mental condition is as fit as your physical condition.

7 Ways to Manage Student-Athlete Stress

1. Make sure you have other things you do for fun. Many of us got into sports as kids, and we played “for fun.” If that’s the case for you too, awesome! But be aware of the fact that though you may still love your sport, competing in school is actually hard work too. You’re having fun, sure, but you’re also using up a lot of brain and muscle power in games and in practice. Make sure you have other ways to specifically have fun each week, whether that’s a movie night with your siblings, meeting your friends for a game night, or teaching your dog a new trick you saw on #dogtraining TikTok.

2. Make sure you have other things you do for relaxation. School sports take a lot out of you–they require intense focus and push you to your physical limits. That means you need to prioritize rest! Even (especially) if you’re extremely busy outside of sports, without rest your mind and body will get burned out. Prioritize getting the right amount of sleep each night, but look for other activities to help you feel rested as well. Reading for a bit, taking a bath, or going on a walk can be helpful forms of active rest when you only have a small amount of time at your disposal.

3. Make sure your involvement in sports isn’t a “numbing” technique. Brene Brown talks a lot in her work about the concept of “numbing,” which is when we’re so overwhelmed by our feelings that use an activity to distract us from them. She uses the example of binge-watching a tv show as one of her numbing techniques, but excessive alcohol use, workaholism, or even excessive exercise are popular numbing techniques too. If you find yourself using practice or games to avoid having to deal with something difficult in your life, that’s a sign of unhealthy coping.

4. Make sure you have someone to talk to about the pressure. This could be a trusted friend or family member or a school counselor or therapist. Olympic medalist Michael Phelps has talked openly about how professional help has worked for him over the years, so it might be worth looking into for you as well!

5. Examine why you participate in sports at school. When you are packing your gym bag in the morning, cleaning your equipment, and getting dressed in the locker room, how do you feel? Are you content and hopeful? Are you exhausted and full of dread? Connecting to why you play is crucial to staying mentally healthy. If you love the sport and enjoy playing, remind yourself of that when things get tough.

6. Consider limiting your other extracurriculars. By all means, allow yourself to do the activities you enjoy! But don’t feel the need to do it all. Participating in a competitive sport is a huge time commitment on its own, and there’s no shame in letting that be your only hustle outside of academics. You’re already an athlete! You don’t have to be the president of ten clubs too.

7. Take breaks when you need to. Take a leaf out of Simone Biles’ book. If you think you’re burned out, powering through isn’t going to help anyone. You could get seriously injured or end up ruining your enjoyment of the sport itself! Talk to your parents and coaches about a short leave of absence or a vacation, and use that time to rest and recover. Taking breaks may save your athletic career!

You Shouldn’t Have to Sacrifice Your Sanity for Sports

Even Jesus Christ took breaks from His work as a healer, speaker, and community organizer. While the Bible doesn’t mention that He was an athlete, He was often walking several miles a day, so His breaks were necessary for His mind, spirit, and body. If the Son of God can save the world and make time for naps and meals with friends, let that encourage you to make time for your mental health as a student-athlete. If you’re struggling to find ways to practice self-care during your busy life, reach out to one of our Hope Coaches. We can walk you through some resources that might help you with your mental health journey as well as support you in the midst of the pressures of school and sports. Student-athletes are superstars, and you don’t have to go through life alone!

Asking yourself these six simple questions when you feel overwhelmed can help you identify the next steps and move past overwhelming situations.

- Cara Beth

Cara Beth Graebner
Cara Beth Graebner is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, Illinois. With a degree in creative writing from the College of Charleston and a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting from Western Michigan University, she's been living by her pen for many years. She loves the way words come together to bring light into dark places, which is the goal of every piece she writes for TheHopeLine and other clients. When she's not writing, she's probably snuggling her 2-year-old pup, reading a book, or gardening.
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