As you may or may not know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. It’s a blip in time where we can pause to think about a very big need that must be addressed in our culture today. And not only just within our culture at large, but within the specific subculture of athletics and college sports.
- 85 percent of college students report feeling stress on a daily basis.
- 27 percent of female athletes and 21 percent of male athletes reported that, in the past 12 months, they felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
- 32 percent of male athletes and nearly half of all female athletes report feeling “overwhelming anxiety.”
- 40 percent of women have anorexia or bulimia at some point in their college career.
These are just a few stats that tell a story of what’s occurring with college students and student-athletes today -- a story that is quite concerning.
What it says to me is that there are a lot of exceptional young men and women out there that feel pressure from a lot of different sources, but don’t have the skills and abilities to adequately cope. To do so, they turn to unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms, and have a lot of internal turmoil they are battling with.
College is a critical time in the personal development of an individual – athlete or not. There are a lot of experiences and influences that go into shaping a person at this stage. What messages are sent, what is said, the media, examples from parents, the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” from family, teachers, coaches, friends, etc., all play a pivotal role in developing an individual.
Many athletes at this stage also identify themselves closely with their sport as it’s something they have done for the majority of their childhood. When you spend a lot of time doing one thing, it's only natural it will be come a big part of your life and who you perceive you are as a person.
As individuals who work with student-athletes and athletes, we need to find ways to make mental health and identity development more of a focus overall in the work we do with them every day. Whether you are a coach, work in an athletic department, a parent, a teammate, a mentor or an influencer, there are very simple ways to connect and ensure each athlete is getting what they need with regards to mental health support.
Why? As Tim Elmore states so eloquently: “Research shows that athletes are stronger and more resilient at their sport when they construct an identity that goes beyond the sport. We’ve also learned that athletes who’ve developed a healthy sense of identity outside of one sport are better able to handle adversity; to remain emotionally stable and to fight angst…Athletes must be able to honestly say, “My sport is what I do, not who I am.”"
So, how can we collectively, as helping professionals, teachers and coaches help athletes address their mental health and personal development needs?
1. Cultivate Connection.
- Be mindful.
- Go deeper than the technical side of the sport.
- Teach athletes about self-care, stress management, sleep, peer intervention and how to identify and recognize symptoms of mental health disorders.
- Incorporate new activities addressing needs “off the field” including workshops and activities around developing a positive identity.
- Talk about what identity is and how it develops.
- Be an example. Live balance, practice recovery, and own your story and mistakes.
3. Create Awareness.
- Leverage assessments and tools to create awareness around strengths, weaknesses and needs.
- Go beyond sports to find these elements.
- Establish a feedback loop and culture that encourages positive and ongoing constructive feedback.
4. Build Accountability & Opportunities.
- Set up annual mental health screenings with your athletes or teams.
- Create a mentorship program allowing veteran athletes share experiences with younger athletes.
What do you think? What are some ways in which you address and incorporate this topic with your athletes?