People sit down to watch sports every night, and are in awe of the performance of their favorite athlete.
What is overlooked is the mental effect on collegiate athletes. No one can see into the brain or the heart of a student athlete and trust me, it matters.
Collegiate sports brings so much competition not only between two teams but also between teammates. Everyone is competing for a spot and that can be taxing. Every pitch, or shot, or jump is criticized by coaches to evaluate which athlete is their best option. Sometimes, these evaluations result in changes in lineups and causes a roller coaster of emotions for the athlete.
Pressure of performance is not the only weight on the brain of an athlete. Classroom performance is just as important. When an athlete is in season, they often miss a lot of classes and keeping up can be difficult and stressful. Grades fall and so does the confidence of the athlete.
If stress of performance on the field and stress of classroom performance are combined, it can cause real mental problems for the athlete.
2022 saw a spike in suicide in collegiate athletes. In 2011 the NCAA did a study that showed 7.3% of student-athlete deaths were via suicide. The most recent 2022 study showed that the number has grown to 16.8%. This increasing tragedy is not getting better. It is getting worse.
Some people blame the pandemic and isolation for these numbers and some blame cell phones and social media. While some of that could be true, the real problem is the lack of avenues for struggling student-athletes to go to when they are in crisis. Universities send out mass emails of phone numbers to use in case of crisis or post them on fliers in hallways. As a student-athlete – I’m a pitcher for the baseball team – I have read or taken time to look at zero of those options and I have actively struggled with mental health as a student-athlete.
Collegiate sports is changing, NIL (name, image, and likeness) has joined the game. This new rule allows players to gain financially for advertisement or brand deals and other stuff like that. This adds more stress and more pressure into an already stressed life. Now, if a player is extremely good or has some interesting aspect about them, they can make a quick buck. Athletes are pursuing that and that makes performance even more crucial because athletes are now selling themselves. There has been a 3% increase in mental health cases and anxiety diagnoses in student athletes since the start of the NIL era.
Hutchinson Community College had a great speaker for student-athletes that offered an avenue. Mark Potter, who is a former head collegiate basketball coach at Newman University in Wichita, came and spoke to my school and he gave an emotion and experience filled talk on the impact of mental health and his own story. However, I do not see other colleges doing the same. I have many friends in college sports who have told me nothing has been offered to them in the way of mental health.
Something needs to be changed. While some mental-health clinics and organizations are trying, more needs to be done. We need to make ourselves so available that all students are not scared about opening up about their mental health. Doors need to be opened, walls need to be broken down, and lives need to be saved.
To help cure mental health, we need to offer free mental help to all student-athletes because life as a student athlete is hard. It is like a full time job while being a student. Pressures are high and expectations are high. Help our student-athletes to win this fight against mental health.
My experience with mental health as a collegiate athlete has been an up-and-down ride. As a freshman heading to practice one, I was nervous and I scrutinized everything that I did. That weighed on me. I also struggled to find good friends and that did not help me because I had no one to go to when I was struggling. As my fall season went on and we started to travel, I found myself falling behind in classes and some of my professors offered no help to me. This added a whole new level of stress to education. I found myself frantically finishing assignments and stories even if I knew they were average at best because I did not care. I was just checking the boxes. When the second semester started, it just became harder. The spring baseball season was almost upon us and every pitch and play mattered even more. I found myself prioritizing only baseball, and my academics slipped out of my hands. I was losing control. I found myself up all night, losing sleep over making sure I had a good plan to check all the boxes the next day. My mental health went to levels it had never been. I was degrading myself and putting myself down. I was not eating and I had no motivation to check any boxes anymore. Once I finally had a conversation with my advisor things started to get better. I started to be more open with some of my teammates. This only happened because they made themselves available.
I point this out because it took an avenue of trust for me to overcome my own mind and open up to someone else. This is something that is lacking in collegiate athletics today. My minor case of poor mental health is just an example of what can go through the heads of student-athletes. I cannot encourage enough for people to be strong avenues and friends for people who you could think are struggling. All it takes is asking if they are OK and checking in on one of them. You never know if that simple question can spark a conversation of change for that person.
Sam Ojeda is a Lincoln, Nebraska freshman studying journalism. He is the Collegian’s Sports Editor and a pitcher for the Blue Dragon baseball team.