[SPORTS OPINION] Student athletics lacks proper emphasis on mental health


Illustration: Isabel Saavedra-Weis

While many student athletes have opportunities to flex their muscles, they rarely are given time to think about their mental health – which is proving to need more attention than most think.

An athlete is hard working, dedicated, and unfaltering. They’re strong, determined, and… mentally healthy? Student athletes spend hours in the gym, on the court, on the field, running, lifting, building muscle, endurance, and strength. But there is much less emphasis on student athletes being mindful, resting their mind, and building their mental strength.

It’s not that mentality is never addressed. Senior Sawyer Johnson plays on the SPA Boys Basketball team every year, and “one of the biggest thing [coaches] talk about is bringing good attitude and energy to practice.”

Good attitude and energy means being positive, supportive of other teammates, and engaged in practice, rather than complaining and giving little effort. However, this can become hard when student athletes have to attempt balancing being a student, and being an athlete.

“Coaches said that homework isn’t an excuse to missing practice, and that we will have some late nights. But they still expect us to bring the same energy and same enthusiasm the next day, even if we are exhausted. It can become a nasty cycle” Johnson said.

However, Johnson has observed some trends on the Boys’ Basketball team that could lead to better mental health. For some struggling with mental health, just going to practice, being part of a team, and getting physical activity is a great outlet. Additionally, the Varsity team has been doing yoga on Saturday practices, which has been widely popular among the team.

“I don’t know if that’s the actual yoga speaking, or if it’s because they do yoga instead of a hardcore practice,” Johnson admits.

Despite one team’s moves to incorporate mindfulness into their practices, other teams still have a long way to go. Sophomore Gabriella Thompson, three-sport athlete on the tennis, basketball, track teams, wants coaches and team leadership to recognize the importance of mental health. Part of the solution might be coaches acknowledging that students have a lot coming at them from all angles, and not just their athletic life.

“There’s a lot of pressure put on one student. If a student has school, family stuff, and mental health issues, it builds up,” Thompson said.

This “build up” of pressure has proven to spiral out of control for many student athletes, especially when playing college sports. In a New York Times article, suicide was stated as the third largest cause of college athlete deaths, and about 25 percent of college athletes show signs of depression. While a number of things could cause these mental health issues, many think that the pressure athletes face – school work, family life, games, practices, performance, social media, scholarships – contributes largely to the problem.

Of course, in a high school setting, some of those pressures have not yet begun to enter student athletes’ minds. But there is still an imbalance on importance placed on physical strength versus mental strength, and plenty to be done to destigmatize the latter.

“Coaches should be more receptive to students missing practice for mental health reasons, just as they would be if [a player] sprained an ankle. It should be the same. If something is hurt, you have to take time so it can heal,” said Thompson.