Let’s Talk About the Mental Health of Student Athletes

Addressing mental well-being is essential to give top-tier college athletes the power to perform

Many thanks to Dr. Stephen Hebard, Ph.D. whose research and words are referenced in this article. Dr. Hebard is an associate researcher at the Center for Athlete Well-being at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and also works closely with Hilinki’s Hope, an organization dedicated to bringing mental health awareness and tools to student-athletes across the country.  

We all struggle with mental well-being sometimes, even top-performing student-athletes face these challenges. According to the NCAA Student Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being survey, 32% of student-athletes feel constantly overwhelmed and 33% felt exhausted mentally mostly every day.  

College athletes at the top of their field have incredibly high amounts of pressure on them. This pressure can help them perform well on the field but may also be associated with mental health struggles and even create a barrier to seeking help from others.  

Factors that might impact student-athlete mental health  

The factors that contribute to an individual’s state of mental health are layered and personal and involve many internal and environmental factors. The experience of athletes is no exception to this, and according to Dr. Stephen Hebard of the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Center for Athlete Well-being, athlete identity also comes into play: 

“Athlete identity and their self-concept is core to athletes’ help seeking behavior. From a young age, we’re flooded with external rewards from performances on the field. Really quickly, in these important and developmental periods in our life, we start to understand that when we perform really well, people value us. It’s an obvious equation. It’s great to give praise and it’s okay to say good job to kids who are doing well, but it becomes problematic when it becomes the only way these people and kids are rewarded and feel valued.” 

Along with potential struggles with identity, student-athletes may also struggle with how they feel rewarded. Hebard states that feelings of perfectionism and the idea of validation being conditional on performance might not even be consciously known to athletes, but it doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.  

“With athletes that reach these elite tiers, many of them have only experienced relational rewards, such as ‘I am as worthwhile as my performance is good or successful.’ Even if they’re not actively saying this to themselves regularly, it’s this covert and subconscious message in their minds. ‘I need to perform so others think I’m enough. I need to be tough to show that I’m enough. I need to be good at this. I need to train hard to show my commitment because if I’m committed, I’m enough.” 

In a world where athletes are often taught to be tough and work through the pain, there may be a fear of consequences for not seeming or feeling like they’re “enough” if they open up and seek support.  

According to NCAA Student Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being Survey, less than half of responders (47%) feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.  

The impact mental health can have on athletic performance 

Stress and anxiety can come from playing in front of a large crowd, from missing a goal, and from the stakes constantly being raised in each game or competition. 

These pressures and stressors can affect athletes in different ways, but at a minimum, concerns such as stress and anxiety can cause athletes to be distracted. Being mentally distracted without a complete focus can be physically dangerous for athletes. A gymnast doing an incorrect flip or a skier taking a turn too quickly can cause serious injuries. It’s important to give athletes time to understand their feelings, develop coping strategies, connect with others, and find strength in their vulnerability. 

Taking care of your mental health the same way you take care of your physical health 

When stress and pressure start affecting our mental well-being and our ability to complete daily tasks or perform to the level required, then it may be time to seek information and take steps to feel better. 

According to Dr. Hebard, it can be hard for top-tier athletes to seek help, as it seems like it’s at odds with the competitive experience, but he’s seen change.  

“Ultimately help seeking seems at odds with the athletic population. It can be felt as an admission of weakness, an admission of having a problem of some sort. I will say though, that’s changed a lot over the last decade, there’s been such an effort to normalize mental health seeking. I think we’re seeing things change.”  

If you or someone you know is feeling the stress and pressure from their sport and school, try some of the following tips: 

Understand your responses to pressure, stress, and anxiety 

Have you noticed a pattern of what is causing you high levels of stress and anxiety? Is there a point at which stress goes from motivating to debilitating? Sometimes when we’re having a hard time coping, we can trace it back to an event but other times it’s the little things that add up. Writing down your feelings and understanding things that may have led to mental health struggles can help us move forward.  

On Togetherall, there’s a journaling tool where you can write out your feelings, experiences, and work through whatever you’re going through in private. Only you can see your journal. 

Connect with others who understand 

According to the NCAA Student Athlete Mental Health and Well-Being Survey, 58% of male athletes and 65% of female athletes feel their teammates take the health concerns of fellow teammates seriously.  

Connecting with others who understand can greatly impact our physical and mental health. It can be hard to open up to others about your struggles, especially if that means opening up to teammates or coaches. 

Ready to open up but not sure you’re ready to open up to your teammates or coaches? Try Togetherall.  

Togetherall is: 

  1. Anonymous. You can open up about your experiences, struggles or successes without fear or judgment from others.  
  1. Available 24/7. You can interact with others on the platform, read helpful articles, take courses or complete self-assessments anytime of the day or night. Making it convenient to unpack the highs and lows after a game or practice. 
  1. Safe. Togetherall is monitored 24/7 by mental health professionals so the community stays safe, inclusive and you can get additional support if needed. 

Connect with others who have had similar experiences in a safe, anonymous, and supportive online environment. 


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