MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS IN THE CULTURE OF ATHLETES
- Team norms. Heavy drinking and sometimes substance use may be normative on some teams. When a group is highly cohesive—something that is very often the case on college sports teams—team norms are strongly predictive of behavior.
- Attempted performance enhancement. Athletes are always looking for a way to get an edge in their performance. There are many healthy, safe, and legal ways to increase performance. However, some athletes may believe that certain drugs, such as stimulants, can help their performance. Not only is the illicit use of many of these substances considered cheating but these substances may also be harmful to health, particularly in the case of non-medically monitored stimulant use.
- Fear of punishments. Some student-athletes may be resistant to seeking help for fear of punishment for NCAA violations. Student-athletes are subject to NCAA regulations that relate to the use of some substances. Student-athletes may fear a loss of athletic eligibility if they seek help for illicit drug use. (see www.ncaa.org/drugtesting for NCAA drug testing policies.)
CONCERNING EATING PATTERNS
Student-athletes can struggle with misperceptions about their weight and performance. Different sports have different body demands, and body composition is in some cases one element of optimal sports performance. Consequently, there are often stereotypes about what successful bodies look like, and many athletes equate losing weight with improving sports performance. However; these stereotypes do not adequately account for variability between individuals, and the relationship between weight and performance is rarely that simple. Athletes who lose too much weight, or engage in unhealthy behaviors to lose weight, will often not experience the desired performance benefit and may also suffer other health consequences that impact their overall wellbeing. Athletes who are inadequately fueling their bodies may experience hormonal disruptions that lead to compromised bone density and an increased risk of bone injuries, including stress fractures. In times of doubt, consult with your doctor or nutritionist to determine what may be most beneficial for your health.
MOOD IMBALANCES AND DEPRESSIVE SYMPTOMS
Although most depressive symptoms occur for reasons unrelated to sports participation, for some student-athletes, there can be risks related to their participation in sports. These can include:
- Psychological response to injury
- Psychological response to the beginning and end of an athletic career
- Psychological response to performance deficits and criticism
For some athletes, symptoms of depression will include a constant sense of fatigue, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, and loss of confidence. It is possible that for some athletes these changes could negatively impact athletic performance, although this is not necessarily the case.
- Elevated stress. Symptoms of anxiety disorders often worsen under stress. A student-athlete may be experiencing stress because of the transition of being away from home and adjusting to a new living situation, the worry of achieving academically or meeting athletic expectations in his or her sport.
- Athletic pressures. Some athletes who do not meet the criteria for a generalized anxiety disorder may experience athletic performance-related anxiety.
- Coaching style. When a coach yells excessively, some student-athletes may experience problematic increases in anxiety and fear.
Symptoms of feeling overwhelmed or anxious may include having an increased heart rate, breathing rapidly, sweating, trembling, and feeling weak or tired when experiencing a situation that is considered a threat. Athletes experiencing these symptoms may have diminished ability to execute on the athletic field. Student-athletes who experience athletic performance-related anxiety may find that it compromises their ability to perform at their best. Talking with a counselor can help to navigate factors related to the source of one’s stress.
CHANGES IN SLEEP PATTERNS
Timing of practices, travel and competition can interfere with regular sleep patterns. Balancing academic time demands can decrease sleep opportunities, especially when athletes are often expected to be physically active some nights. This can lead to diminished reaction time and cognitive functioning which can result in greater difficulty learning and remembering plays or instructions as well as regulating one’s mood.
Sleep after a practice or game is critical for consolidating benefits from the effort and repairing the body. A “work hard, play hard” mentality may see some student-athletes following large efforts with social events that compromise sleep that is necessary for recovery.
HOW TO GET HELP
Free, confidential counseling is available at the University Counseling Center, 206 Health Services Building, 610-519-4050.