The Mental Game

Silent struggles with mental health affect student-athletes.

March 9, 2023

Sports are an intrinsic part of American high school life. Students enjoy Friday nights squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in rows of bleachers as they watch football and basketball games. Cheerleaders, dancers, and band members—all talented athletes in their own right—dedicate portions of their seasons to supporting other sports. Speeches during pep assemblies and daily announcements recognize the accomplishments of athletes from all sports.

It’s easy to hear about the accolades, see the yearbook photos, and think student-athletes are living the dream; they get to play a sport they love surrounded by a supportive team and student body.

In some ways, that is true. But there are other situations that are harder to see: the deep breaths taken in the locker room to calm nerves, the late nights spent studying after a game, the numerous apologies for not having time to hang out.

Unlike award ceremonies, these events occur daily. While their sport is in season, student-athletes focus for 7 hours at school, train at a 2-4 hour practice, and come home to do hours of homework and studying.

“It was hard to study for tests or do assignments because I was always really tired [after practice],” freshman tennis player Addie Wesley said.

Like many high schoolers, athletes struggle with managing their time. Tempted by the content abyss of social media, it’s easy to become distracted and disconnected from external responsibilities. Practices, conditioning sessions, team events and competitions take hours of commitment. Schoolwork can be neglected as athletes focus on their sport, and sleep is often sacrificed to maintain a good gpa.

“I’m terrible at time management; I call it tactical procrastination,” senior Carson Guthrie, who participates in cross country, swim, and track, said. “I don’t let [homework] pile up too much, but I definitely do things at the last minute. It’s hard to figure out what to prioritize.”

This stress is compounded as student-athletes repeatedly miss class for games or meets. They can miss precious instruction and fall behind, having to make up tests and quizzes that occurred while they were competing.

“Many coaches will say you’re a student first and then you’re an athlete. But you have to leave school a lot, specifically 7th hour, for meets and practices,” Guthrie said.

When student-athletes fall behind in class, the key to success is communication with their teachers. Students have Seminar every Tuesday where they can make up tests and talk directly with teachers. Academics First tutoring is also offered after school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays until 4 and on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from 7-7:30.

“It’s stressful to miss a practice because you have to make up a test or quiz after school, but most coaches don’t hold that against you,” junior and track athlete Aurora Wessel said. “You are able to prioritize that and aren’t going to be penalized.”

“Student” comes before “athlete” for a reason. These kids are students first, athletes second. But they are also employees, siblings, and friends. They are multi-talented artists, actors, and musicians. As student-athletes balance their work in the classroom with the expectations of their sports, other sacrifices have to be made.

“[Athletics] definitely overwhelms other parts of my life. I typically don’t work during cross country season because the meets take up weekends,” junior cross country and track runner Audrey Schultz said.

In addition to part-time jobs, athletes’ social lives can be neglected as they fulfill the demands of their sports.

“I have to make an effort to make sure I’m still seeing all my friends,” senior cross country and track athlete Hannah Gibson said.

Often, making connections within a sport is just as important as maintaining outside friendships. Teammates spend hours together each day and support each other during tough workouts and important competitions. They understand one another well because they are focused on achieving the same goal.

“One of the biggest parts of a team is team bonding,” Guthrie said, “You want to hang out with everyone there so you have a close knit group of people, but trying to balance that with other responsibilities can be hard.”

This approaches a truth that busy high schoolers face: sometimes, making sure everything gets done is little more than checking a box. Do the project, get the grade, ace the test. Check, check, check. Go to practice, impress your coaches, win the game. More checks. Even cultivating friendships and facilitating team bonding can feel more like a burdensome expectation than a gift.

Although the “do it all” mentality is a cultural attitude, it rings most true for those in competitive environments. Shaped by the athletic ethos of winning at all costs, athletes are left with the binary options of success or failure—check the box, or don’t.

“The competitive nature of sports creates a situation where you’re always trying to beat yourself and other people,” Wessel said, “and what comes with that is the pressure of not failing, of living up to your own and other people’s expectations.”

In today’s athletic culture,“not failing” doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Many coaches in youth and high school sports stress the importance of achieving “personal bests”. But the focus on effort and competing with yourself has an unintended consequence; for many, to “not fail” means to give 100% at everything. It means to set lofty expectations and surpass them without missing a beat.

“It’s not just the fear of not doing well, it’s the fear of not living up to your potential,” Wessel said. “It’s constant worrying that you cannot reach the level you’re expected to perform at.”

Outside of sports, striving for success materializes as overcommitment to clubs, relationships and leadership roles. The same perfectionistic tendencies that make an athlete anxious to compete also demand perfect grades. If they falter in these endeavors, they haven’t only let themselves down, but also others.

“I hate disappointing people who I look up to,” Wessel said. “My coaches put so much into the program that it makes me want to return that effort. But can what I’m putting in be the same? Is it good enough for the amount of work they do? And then I also want to make my team proud because they’re all so talented and supportive.”

Like Wessel, many student-athletes aren’t just focused on impressing others; they don’t want to let their opportunities and gifts go to waste. Their athletic and academic performance are repayments for their coaches’ effort, their teachers’ time, and their parents’ sacrifice.

“My sophomore year, I felt a lot of pressure to go to state [for track] and I didn’t do as well as everyone was hoping,” Gibson said, “so I felt like I let a lot of people down.”

In reality, sports aren’t simply a transaction between athlete and coach. And they aren’t exclusively about competition, either. Sports are about building camaraderie, learning new skills, developing character, and appreciating what your body can achieve. They are a celebration of the human spirit.

Nobody knows this better than professional athletes. Their lives are dedicated to the pursuit of athletic excellence. But even at an elite level, athletes are not immune to mental strife.

At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team final because her mind was not in a safe place to compete. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has detailed his struggles with depression and anxiety. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Royals pitcher Zack Greinke and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love have all shared how mental health affects their performance.

In a 2018 essay for The Player’s Tribune, Love described why it was so challenging to ask for help.

“Call it stigma or fear or insecurity…but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles but how difficult it was to talk about them,” he wrote. “I didn’t want people to perceive me as somehow less reliable as a teammate, and it all went back to the playbook I’d learned growing up.”

That “playbook” is strikingly familiar to many student-athletes: be a good student, a good player, a good teammate. Check all the boxes. It is a game plan that doesn’t leave room for the player to show any signs of weakness—to be human.

“At the end of the day, we’re human too,” Biles told reporters just hours after her decision to withdraw from the Olympics. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather and just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Thanks to athletes like Biles, the world’s expectations—and the playbook that accompanies them—are changing. When pre-performance nerves are validated by coaches, it has a noticeable impact on athletes’ success.

“It’s important to know that it’s normal and okay to have anxiety before a race, and my coaches are really good at giving pep talks and helping me calm down,” Schultz said. “Then I can use that anxiety to kickstart my race.”

Another approach to protecting student-athletes’ mental health is playing defense: finding coping strategies and hobbies that don’t involve their identities in school or sports.

“Sometimes running doesn’t work [as a coping strategy], so I do yoga, journaling, and other little things to take care of myself,” Gibson said.

When it’s hard to handle the pressure alone, or even open up to coaches, parents, or peers, students can access school counseling services for assistance. The work of these counselors and social workers is invaluable, but many kids that could receive help are turned away by its impersonal environment.

“When you go [to a counselor] it feels like you’re being evaluated, everything’s being reported and tracked,” Wessel said. “Sometimes you just want to have a confidential conversation without it being so official.”

Those casual conversations can, and should, take place anywhere: in the classroom, in the locker room, at the dinner table. Student-athletes should feel welcome to toss the perfect playbook and let their humanity shine through.

“I couldn’t fall asleep last night.”

“I feel guilty for saying no to my friends.”

“I’m worried about letting my coaches down.”

“I’m so behind, my teachers must think I’m lazy.”

“What if I’m not living up to my potential?”

It’s ok, take a deep breath. Dak Prescott fumbles snaps. Zack Greinke lets up runs. Kevin Love misses free throws.

We’re all human.

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