Article appears on The Mental Matchup & The Hidden Opponent.
As a former Division 1 student athlete at the University of Louisville, my well-being and sense of belongingness was explicitly tied to my success in the pool. I was a proud All-American swimmer for our nationally ranked program, which provided my fondest memories, and is the root of my appreciation for what a group of driven and like-minded teammates can accomplish together. While I always rose to the occasion when the pressure was on, there also loomed a dark cloud of self-doubt that my successes were still not enough. Put simply: I needed help. The athletic department did a good job of setting up student athletes with the resources they need to be successful in athletics, however I still felt a disconnect from achieving any sort of balance as an individual out of the pool.
Don’t get me wrong, my college years were filled with joy and memories from a rewarding swimming career. But having a tool in my tool belt (or mesh equipment bag) for my mental health would have been the game-changer to elevate my performance in the pool, and out of the pool, when the pressure was on. As I finished my swimming career at Olympic trials in June 2016, I was overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia in remembering the hard work that led me to such a grand stage. Alongside that, I’m reminded of the isolation I felt in that experience. Being on that stage wasn’t easy and I often felt like I needed extra help to manage the stress when the lights were on. My stress stemmed from a singular focus on the expectations to perform as an athlete. In retrospect, my well-being as a college-aged male always took a back seat. I needed extra help, and knowing what I know now, I wish that it had been in the form of augmented therapy, digital mental health tools to take with me to competition, or just having the space to work on achieving balance as an individual.
I didn’t feel like other students, with the bulk of my curriculum and academics existing alongside a 40-hour-a-week training schedule. Where all of that pressure accumulated was bringing myself to an emotional and physical peak, standing behind the blocks, mentally gearing up for each 400 Individual Medley. The pressure to perform was often crippling, as I imagine it is for any other student athlete, no matter the sport or stage. According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, more than 32 percent of male athletes – and nearly half of female athletes – reported feeling overwhelming anxiety.
With the extreme pressures for success, I couldn’t focus on anything but my end goal. I would regularly encounter issues, whether it be my compromised immune system before a meet, or a lack of mental well-being in my curriculum. Due to my tunnel-visioned pursuit of success, it was almost always too late for me to seek help by the time I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t feel like I had time for in-person therapy, not to mention dealing with the stigma of weakness that comes with seeking mental health help for many high-performance athletes. An intermediary service, or self-help tool that spoke to my unique experience could have met me with proper support. Had I been able to access the right resources at the right time, as an earlier intervention to this pressure, my performance could have been next-level.
Additionally, let’s not forget the critical role that coaches and athletic department administrators play when it comes to the success of student athletes in sport and as a people. This unique position puts these mentors in a role that can make or break such a formative experience for many. They are often seen as the first line of defense, connecting athletes to the resources that they need, and those connections ultimately helped me more seamlessly navigate college and life. My coaching staff was always supportive of this formative journey. However, I am aware that my experience is not the same for all student athletes. Coaches who are either unaware of the resources geared to help student athletes succeed, or who intentionally drive a wedge between athletic success and mental health, ultimately create huge barriers to their athletes getting the care they need. Access to referrals, whether that be to an on-campus support, psychoeducation, or any digital tools, can amplify the role that coaches play in helping their athletes navigate successful lives on campus.
With pressure greater than it’s ever been in college athletics, it’s time for institutions to step up for student-athletes by: breaking down the barriers to help-seeking, actively connecting student-athletes to treatment options, and increasing access to resources 24/7, as, more often than not, the loneliest and most challenging times are not during classes or at practice. As a student-athlete myself, I always believed that having the mental edge on my opponent put me in an advantageous position when it came to competition. While that may be true, mental health and well-being support for student athletes needs to go beyond their success in sports, and needs to be more focused on the individual’s well-being as a whole.