The Invisible Student-Athlete

What is your perception of a Division I student-athlete? For some, we think they are extremely fortunate, receive a "free ride", are entitled and receive unearned benefits because of their status, and overall popular. What others don't often see is the undercover struggle of the student-athlete. The attitudes from professors when many classes have been missed due to practice and competition schedules, the constant demands from coaches and parents, the strain of trying to be everything to everyone and not knowing who to confide in when things get tough, and the fluctuations in self-esteem when injuries (emotional or physical) as identity has been formed primarily around sport participation.

This isn't an article for us to feel "badly" for D1 student-athletes. They have a great privilege to be able to play a sport that they are likely passionate about and receive free tuition and there is so much to be grateful for. But, the person behind the title of "student-athlete" can sometimes be forgotten, dismissed, and invisible. This is the person who is often hiding behind a curtain of their title and sport, and who is sometimes afraid to come out to say they are tired, depressed, anxious, and don't know how they can go on. These are the athletes that need help, yet sometimes are hesitant to share their feelings and do not know who to reach out to.

When we see student-athletes on the playing field, we need to remember that they are human beings. Some come from a graduating class of 12 in a rural part of their state while others were super stars in the making from the age of five. We need to see them for the performer that they are, but also the human that is underneath their cloak of player, athlete, and teammate. The modern student-athlete is struggling because living up to the expectations around them is all consuming and exhausting with little preparation spent on how to manage academic and sport demands at a high level.

The college years are a challenging time for someone not participating in sport. The life stages of separation and individuation are occurring, and for some, they have never been "on their own" before. Some may have struggled in academics prior to college, and now with the demands of athletic participation, they are struggling even more (though there are resources for many athletes that are assisting with this type of support). There is also body image concerns. For the average female student, they might experience dissonance when they do not meet the standards of our societally prescribed thin-ideal. For athletes, there is an additional "ideal" called the "sport body ideal". Thus, student athletes feel pressure to maintain a body type that can sometimes be ideal for their sport, but it may be opposite of the culturally prescribed thin ideal. This enhances body dissatisfaction places these athletes at an increased risk for body image disturbances and disordered eating patterns. Finally, there are also team and coach pressures. Conforming to team and coach demands can feel threatening because your team is your family, and there is little room to go against spoken (and unspoken) standards. While some pressures can be positive, other pressures can feel as though you have no control and no choices, both of which can make an athlete feel depressed, hopeless, and stuck.

Some recommendations for coaches, parents, administrators who are involved with (or will be) Division 1 Athletics:

1. Recognize the student-athlete as a HUMAN first and student-athlete second. When there are messages that you care about the person for who they are (and not how they have performed or not performed), they will be likely to compete better, stronger, and with less burnout. They will also be more likely to feel like they can share if they have struggles and get support with whatever they might be dealing with because they know others have their back and truly want what is best for them, even if this means having conversation about dropping out of sport.

2. Develop interests outside of sport. For many of the athletes I have worked with, they have spent many years perfecting their sport, investing massive amounts of time and money to develop, refine, and excel in their sport. As more and more time is invested (from the athlete and their families), their identity has become completely immersed with their sport participation. Then, when something occurs (injury or otherwise), the athlete significantly struggles because they feel like they have lost everything. When you diversify interests and send messages that they are still a special person OUTSIDE of how they perform and their involvement in sport, the athlete does not feel like their world is falling apart when something happens on or off the field.

3. Encourage your student-athlete to flex their creativity muscle. Many student-athletes feels pressure to conform to expectations about what they should major in prior to school (some of it parent-guided) and start down a path that takes them to this end goal. The problem is that their end goal is not always what they want. Start conversations early and set up opportunities (if possible) to evaluate and check out other careers that could be fulfilling even if it is different than what you want from them. Have them daydream what would be fun and lead with a "why not" attitude versus a "that won't work" attitude.

4. Be realistic about professional play. Many athletes often think their dream job is to be a professional player in their respective sport. The reality is that VERY FEW will actually get to this level. Not that we want to dismiss dreams, but we need to be realistic and have some back-up plans in mind as early as possible. Planning ahead will help buffer some disappointment when there could be a recognition that there might be limited opportunities playing professionally. And if professional play does present as a reality, then they have built a great foundation to know they are CAPABLE of being more (and seeing themselves as more) then just an athlete.

5. Address mental health concerns. When we don't normalize the experience of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns, we are not giving them PERMISSION to talk about it either. Try to normalize the experience of going to college, playing on a Division I team, and the reality that there can be huge pressures. If they have excessive worries, sadness, low self-worth, body image concerns, or disordered eating, IT IS OK. Just know that they can get help and people all around them truly care for their well-being (again, outside of their status as an athlete).

6. Set up systems. This is probably one of the most important parts I want to share about protecting our athletes. For parents, know who is in the counseling center and make sure your child knows they can call them to set up a free appointment on campus. If the counseling center does not seem like a good fit for whatever reason, research other resources and get connected with them. For coaches and athletic departments, have CONVERSATIONS about who is going to share resources to the student-athletes about where they can go and who they can talk to if they need help with an issue. Too often, an athlete feels embarrassed, doesn't know who to talk to, or is afraid that it will "look bad" if anyone finds out they need help. This is not the sentiment we want to send and this primary message about mental health acceptance needs to come from the top. Licensed and qualified support staff should be readily available and systems should be in place to be able to take care of student-athletes, no matter how big an athletic department or university.

7. Create injury support groups. Many athletes who become injured feel depressed and anxious once they become injured, and feel very lonely and isolated from their team. If your child becomes injured, depending on the length and duration of the injury recovery, PLEASE get them connected with a mental health professional or group that can help them through this process. And within the school systems, make sure there are appropriate resources for the athletes so they know they have people they can talk to about their injuries, both during and after. Many Sport Psychologists use mental skills training that can facilitate the emotional healing of the injury that empowers the athletes, gives them tools to thrive when they feel the most out of control, and provides them with connection with others who understand.

8. Normalize and embrace mental health. When we don't talk about mental health, adjustment, and performance pressures, we do not give our athletes permission to ACCEPT and express themselves when they struggle. This is not OK. If we are not advocating for them, who will be?

Overall, the experience of the student-athlete can be an amazing one, full of excitement and success. But, we also need to remember that they are just children who need support and are not always likely to ask for it. If we are not looking out for and taking responsibility their best interests, who will?

Dr. Machin is a Licensed Clinical and Sport Psychologist who resides in Raleigh, NC. She is a member of the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry and a Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. In her clinical work, she meets with many Division 1 athletes (and their parents) and has consulted with athletic department and coaches on eating disorder policies and mental health identification and awareness. She also offers speaking services. You can find her website here and find up to date information and uplifting messages on her Facebook and Instagram. When Dr. Machin is not teaching, writing, cooking, cleaning, talking, hanging with her husband, exercising, or running after her three children, she is enjoying a 5-minute cup of coffee in peace!