The Mental Well-Being of Your Athletes

April 16, 2019


More students at high schools and colleges are using anti-anxiety medications or dealing with a form of depression than ever before. And the world of high school athletics is certainly not immune to the issue of mental health issues.

• About one quarter of college athletes participating in a 2016 study reported "clinically relevant" levels of depressive symptom.

• A study in 2014 revealed that almost 85 percent of certified athletic trainers believe anxiety disorders are current issues with student-athletes on their campus

"Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It's a public health issue and now we're seeing it more and more in our student-athletes," said Timothy Neal, a prominent athletic trainer and sports medicine consultant with specialty in athlete mental health, in an article on "One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue."

More and more college and high school athletic programs are creating mental health educational programs and support services for student-athletes. Here are areas to consider in developing a program at your school.

Before providing tips on how to develop a mental welness program for your athletic department, it's important to understand the reasons why mental health issues can arise among athletes.

“Mental health isn’t apart from, but rather a part of athletic health,” said Brian Hainline, NCAA Chief Medical Officer at the 2017 Collaborative Solutions for Safety in Sport in an article on the website. “Student athletes, they look fit so, basically, they must be healthy and they must be immune to things like depressive thoughts and suicidal thoughts.” “At times, student athletes are idolized and worshiped as heroes, so of course there can’t be something dark and dire inside of them.”

According to the article on the website, student-athlees face stressors unique to playing competitive sports that can cause or advance mental health issues. These stressors include:

  • Over Training: Being pushed too hard or playing above the appropriate age or skill level can lead to anxiety and attrition.

  • Early Specialization: Many student-athletes specialize in one sport early in their career and engage in advanced level, year-round training which can lead to anxiety, stress, overuse injuries, fatigue and ultimately, athlete burnout.

  • Identity Crisis: Part of a student’s identity may be tied to being an athlete. When things occur that challenge this identity, such as an injury or experiencing performance issues, the athlete may start a downward cycle.

  • Demands to Balance It All: Athletes are trying to successfully juggle the physical demands of their sport, maintaining a mentally tough attitude, and being successful in their academics.

  • Maintaining Weight: Many athletes—not just those who compette in weight classifications—feel pressure to maintain a certain weight and physique.

  • Hazing: Unfortunattely, some form of hazing does exisit on various athletic teams, and it's obvious how this can put an athlete over the edge when already feeling anxious about being on a team for the first time.

On the high school level, competing in athletics can help teenagers develop lifelong skills—such as showing courage and perseverance in striving to meet team and individual goals. But the process can also produce anxiety and depression.

Coaches can play a critical role in limiting the chance for sports-related anxiety and depression among their athletes. "Coaches may feel pressured to base their interactions around techniques and tactics of the sport in order to “win now.” Ideally, coaches will have the desire and administrative support to have a lifelong impact on their athletes, helping them develop into caring, competent and productive adults," Cari Wood, ATC, and Kevin Bryant, CMAA write in an article on the NFHS website.

"In turn," the authors continued, "many student-athletes, relishing the positive feedback, rewards of immediate success and attention of a coach may feel pressured to stay in the athletic-performance focused part of the coach-athlete relationship, hiding the ways in which they are struggling and in need of emotional and mental support."

The article reported that the Redmond High School athletic training staff created a "wellness check" form distributed to every fall athlete on a weekly basis, asking the athletes to respond to questions regarding sleep, diet, injury issues and mental health. The Redmond athletic training staff then follows up with an athlete personally if their responses raise a red flag, and then the athletic trainerers decide who else needs to be notified.

The website provides the following ways that coaches, athletic administrators and parents can help to promote strength mental health for student-athletes:

  1. Make sure participating on the team fun, keep the game in perspective, and focus on opportunities instead of failures

  2. The athlete needs to play at the appropriate age and skill level. Forcing them to move up a level before they are ready can cause stress and anxiety.

  3. Provide adequate time for rest during the week and between seasons. Athletes are susceptible to mental health issues when their bodies are worn down.

  4. Encourage athletes to participate in a variety of activities and multiple sports.  If you play only one sport, you may eventually experience burnout.

  5. Ensure the athlete receives a psychosocial screening as part of his or her pre-participation examination. It's best if this is done by the athlete’s primary care provider.

  6. Know the signs and symptoms of mental health concerns in order to help you see potential situations occurring.

  7. Remove the stigma around seeking care. Develop a culture in your program where student athletes feel comfortable talking with authority figures about their mental health status.

  8. Work with the various parties at your school to create a system for referring student athletes with mental health concerns.


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