Reflecting on athlete mental health

(photo courtesy of Pixabay user TheDigitalArtist)

The week of Oct. 24 took a toll on a lot of students here at McDaniel. The passing of Dillan Krebs encouraged coaches in particular to have hard conversations with their teams about mental health. So, I decided to look at mental health and how it affects student athletes here at McDaniel College, both on the field and in the classroom. 

As we attempt to return to a new “normal” in the aftermath of Covid shutdowns and remote learning, we are seeing many changes in our culture that impact mental health and emotional well-being in student athletes. Performance pressures accompanied with these cultural changes can create intense emotional responses to their college lives. 

I interviewed students from the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams and the football team. While these interviews don’t represent the thoughts of every McDaniel athlete, it is helpful to consider these views as we continue to evaluate mental health at McDaniel. 

I first asked the student athletes how mental health affects their performance on the field. “Playing a sport both helps and hinders mental health.” said Bailey Boner, a senior lacrosse midfielder. 

“I say both because working out naturally releases serotonin, but being an athlete is a commitment on and off the field all year long. It can be stressful balancing your time when fifteen plus hours a week are committed to practice, games and lifts.” 

Emily Sheppard, a junior on the women’s lacrosse team said, “The environment can also impact your mental health. If you have unpleasant teammates, that can make going to practice and even school an unpleasant time.” Athletes make it clear that mental health plays a large role in the life of athletes because of the sacrifices they make and the team environment. 

I then asked the student athletes their thoughts on how mental health affects them in the classroom. When I asked Owen Reese, a Junior football player, he said, “I feel that anxiety is one of the biggest problems athletes face, anxiety about getting hurt or getting bad grades and being ineligible. Mental illness can severely impact our performance on and off the field if not taken care of properly.” 

Dylan Vitale, a junior on the men’s lacrosse team, said “I’ve been anxious plenty of times but I always try to do my best in the classroom and on the field. I try to stay motivated and be grateful that I get to play at the collegiate level. I know that if I do well in the classroom, I can do well on the field.” The pressure to perform in the classroom affects the motivation of athletes because they cannot do what they love if their grades are low. 

I questioned how our coaches care for their athletes’ mental health. Owen Reese stated, “Our coaches care so much about us. Most of them have been athletes themselves and understand what we have gone through. They encourage us and help advocate what is best for us.” 

Players look to their coaches when they are struggling on and off the field. They see each other everyday, and coaches can notice when something isn’t right. Athletic departments are challenged with the task of being aware of mental health warning signs, issues and in response be trained to respond.

Mental health and being a student athlete can take its toll on many. It is clear that all athletes have struggled at some point in their careers. They all know that their mental health is important and that it should take priority sometimes. Furthermore, it makes sense that mental health will not only affect athletic performance, but also academic and social success. Early recognition can shorten the time between mental health concerns and treatment, thereby decreasing undue suffering and moving toward health in all areas of a college athlete’s life.

This is an important topic to talk about and understand. If mental health concerns arise, players should talk to their coach, use counselors in the Wellness Center, and connect with an outside therapist. McDaniel also offers support through the Student Accessibility and Support Services Office for any student with a documented psychological, learning or physical disability. All students are continually encouraged to reach out to professors and deans. Creating awareness of available resources and supports, and prioritizing mental health is necessary for all students on campus.