I am a junior on the women's soccer team at the University of Central Arkansas. I am twenty years old and I'm passionate about speaking for people who are tentative to speak for themselves. My major is Criminology and I plan on going to law school to eventually become a prosecuting attorney in the future.
"Fake It Till Ya Make It"
Millions of young athletes dream of playing their favorite sport in college someday. This experience is so deeply sought after by many and only 1% of young athletes actually make it to this level. Fortunately, I am part of that one percent and I am currently in my third season of college soccer at the University of Central Arkansas. College athletes are made to seem like picture-perfect 20-something year olds that have their life all figured out. Until I got to experience this for myself, I never knew how far from perfect the life of a college athlete truly is. While I am so grateful to continue my athletic career, it is incredibly necessary to point out the biggest flaw in college sports: the lack of mental health care.
College is already huge transition for everybody. Separated from home, broke, probably hungry, and trying to keep up with school work is enough to drag any regular college student down, which is why research shows that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students. To give some perspective, the average day for a student athlete goes something like this; wake up (early), practice, eat, shower, class, eat, practice, eat, shower, homework, study, (any ounce of social life?), sleep, repeat six times a week. We get one day off per week, (thank you NCAA) but this unfortunately doesn’t counteract the absolute chaos that the rest of the week brings. Not only is our schedule busy, but we are expected to excel in every category. There is no room to skip practice if you are tired, or skip class because you need to catch up on homework. One-hundred percent is expected, every time, all the time. No excuses. We are socialized to never let anybody associate us with weakness, tiredness, or insufficiency. We seek perfection and inevitably fail, over and over again.
Most, if not all, student athletes tend to experience some degree of mental health problems during their time as a collegiate athlete, in the forms of stress, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. As far as the NCAA is concerned, they have done the research and identified that the mental health of student athletes is a problem. The NCAA Mental Health Handbook states that part of the problem is that “coaches sometime want to assume that student-athletes are healthy simply because they are athletes”. This plays into the stereotype that athletes have their life together, at all times. The handbook continues on by saying that student-athletes actually have the same, if not more, potential fragilities as a normal college student. The NCAA does a great job at defining the root of the mental health issue among student athletes, but has yet to make any steps towards actually fixing the problem.
The concrete priorities of the NCAA are evident in terms of the staff members each team possesses. For example, the coaches are focused on putting together a team of polished individual athletes that will give the program the best chance of winning. Next, the strength coaches are focused on physically training the athletes, specific to their sport, to give the athlete the ability to reach peak performance level. The athletic trainers are focused on the rehabilitation of any physical injuries the athlete might have and strive to get the athlete as physically healthy as possible, in order to perform well. The academic advisors are focused on guiding the athlete towards a degree plan in order to keep the athlete eligible to play and eventually graduate. My point is that the NCAA exhibits their priorities in the form of the staff members each program consists of. Each existent staff member is focused on winning, physical health of the athlete, or academic success. Physical health is incredibly important for a student-athlete to maintain, but mental health and physical health go hand in hand. If one is compromised, the other will be inevitably effected.
I’m currently learning the connection between mental and physical health first-hand. I recently tore my ACL and it will be over six months before I can return to playing the sport I’ve dedicated most of my life to. Not to my surprise, most people, including coaches, teammates, and trainers, are inclined to ask how my knee feels physically, but fail to recognize the stress and anxiety that a season-ended injury will create. While battling internal negativity and stress, I have to somehow find the energy to be as positive as possible in terms of my lengthy and very draining rehabilitation process. I find it quite ridiculous that we have justified the separation of the health of the “body” and the health of the “mind”. During this time, I’ve become exceedingly more aware of the imbalance of care for student-athlete in collegiate sports. It is perfectly normal for a student athlete to seek for help on homework, or ask to get their ankle taped before a game, but the idea of a student athlete reaching out to a current staff member about their mental health struggles seems too abstract to consider. Student-athletes should be able to feel comfortable asking for help, especially when their own life might be at stake.
The NCAA needs to require that each team has a trained mental-health specialist assigned to care for the mental health of student athletes. By instating this policy, the stigmatization of mental health struggles will decrease and the over-all well-being of student athletes will increase. After all, improved mental health of college athletes will increase performance level, which is what we are all aiming for anyways, right?