Why Mental Health Is Important for Athletes

It’s essential to recognize the impact that balancing sports, school, and a busy personal life can have on a student-athlete’s mental health.

Rigorous daily routines, paired with an intense pressure to perform, can quickly overwhelm college-level athletes without support from coaches, athletic departments, family, and friends.

Deaths of collegiate athletes have prompted a swift nationwide debate about the societal demands placed on student-athletes. High-profile players say seeking mental health care is often stigmatized in athletics as a sign of weakness. Athletes are often discouraged from getting help and speaking out.

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Student-Athletes and Mental Health

In a May 2022 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) survey, college athletes reported elevated levels of mental health concerns. Those included feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.

Academic and financial worries, as well as planning for the future, were the most commonly reported stressors. These concerns were highest among women, people of color, and athletes in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Two-thirds of respondents reported knowing where to find mental health resources on campus, and 56% said they knew how to help a teammate with a mental health concern. But fewer than half felt they would be comfortable personally seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.

Student-athletes are more likely to burn out, sustain injuries, and experience a serious mental health crisis without help. In addition, team success is more likely to suffer when athletes don’t get the resources they need to thrive.

Athletes and performance anxiety

The pressure to perform can cause severe anxiety before competitions. This is sometimes called sports anxiety, or performance anxiety. This anxiety may develop after a player has recovered from an injury and prepares for a return to play. It also may happen before a crucial game.

Athletes with performance anxiety may experience panic attacks, with symptoms including shortness of breath, jitters, rapid heartbeat, and sweating.

Athletes and depression

Like other students, student-athletes are at risk of developing mood disorders like depression. They also are at risk of eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and substance use disorders.

Injured athletes are particularly vulnerable to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use problems during and after recovery. They may feel compelled to recover as fast as possible and push through the pain to be there for their team and keep their position. Sitting out some games may feel particularly scary to students relying on a sports-related scholarship to attend their college or university.

When to Seek Help for Mental Health

If you or someone who know is struggling with their mental health, it’s time to get help from a professional counselor. Warning signs include:

  • Frequent low or sad moods.
  • Short temper, irritability, or frequent bouts of anger.
  • Excessive worry, fear, panic, or anxiety.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness.
  • Feeling intense despair.
  • Significant or distributive changes to eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Sudden loss of energy.
  • Apathy, or lack of interest in activities.
  • Confusion.
  • Social withdrawal or avoidance of friends, family, or responsibilities.
  • Problems with alcohol or drug use.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Mental Health Care Tips for Athletes

Athletes can take control of their mental health in several ways. Setting up a support system, aiming for achievable goals, and identifying ways to cope all can help.

Develop a support system

Whether it’s your teammates, coaches, family, friends, or a licensed therapist, establishing a strong social support network is key.

Surround yourself with people who know your value beyond your status on the team. Find a sports psychologist, if possible. And lean into those you trust.

Make time to connect with loved ones, and enjoy hobbies outside of sports. Even the world’s most elite athletes have personal lives.

Set achievable goals

Commit to a series of achievable and diverse short-term goals. These may include athletic goals you’d like to meet but should stretch beyond professional desires to involve personal growth.

Take time to regularly reflect on what you’d like your life to look like moving forward.

Find coping strategies

If you’re struggling with anxiety, knowing what circumstances trigger those feelings may help you understand the reasons behind them and develop healthy management strategies.

In addition to professional guidance, breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, and grounding techniques could keep you present and in control of your emotions.

Speak up when you need help

Recognize when it’s time to seek help or take a break. Taking care of yourself early could prevent a serious illness, injury, or mental health crisis in the future. Also, your honesty could give another teammate the courage to prioritize their mental health.

Communicate openly with those around you about your needs and emotional health. It could save a life.

UPMC Sports Medicine partners with UPMC Western Behavioral Health to support the behavioral health and wellness of athletes. To learn more, call 1-855-937-7678 or visit our website .

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.