While college is often one of the best times of a person’s life, it is also often one of the most challenging. College students are under immense pressure to succeed in all of their activities while still doing well in their classes and graduating within four years. This especially holds true for collegiate athletes. Student-athletes are under constant pressure to succeed in both the classroom as well as the athletic field. Balancing these challenges can be overwhelming for collegiate athletes to handle. Stress from academics and the new social structure of mental toughness can grow to be too much pressure for collegiate athletes to handle. Student-athletes are trained every day to improve their physical strength, but athletes do not receive enough mental health coaching to improve their mental and emotional strength. Even though mental health is becoming a new topic of discussion, many people treat it as a taboo that they do not want to talk about. Mental health is something that everyone has, whether it is poor mental health or good mental health, it concerns everyone, and this topic needs to be discussed to improve overall mental and emotional strength.
Many athletes prior to collegiate sports are recognized as the elite performer in their areas, which can lead to confusion when athletes arrive on campus and everyone is just as good as they are. Overall a little over 7% of high school athletes go on to play varsity sports in college and less than 2% of high school athletes go on to play at NCAA Division 1 schools. The few that do make it are more talented than their peers in high school and can face extreme competitor anxiety once they realize that they are no longer that special player on the team. As expected, college athletes have spent years of their child- and young adulthood honing their athletic skills. Hours per day spent on courts, tracks, fields and in the weight room, culminate with the opportunity to play at a high collegiate level. For years more they dedicate increasing chunks of their time to preparation, conditioning and competition. In many cases, life revolves around their sport—it defines them and gives them purpose. Less than 2% of collegiate athletes make it to a professional level with their sport, leaving 98% to undergo some serious life re-evaluation. Unfortunately, universities under the NCAA do not talk about these situations or prepare athletes for what will occur.
While research and knowledge about mental health in college athletes has grown significantly, the lack of focus on how the constant pressure to succeed in both the classroom as well as the athletic field effects college athletes and leaves a breach for improvement of mental health among athletes at all competitive levels. In January of 2014, Madison Holleran, a close friend to many of my teammates, took her own life at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. This tragedy opened my eyes to the inescapable truth about mental health in student athletes. Despite the preventions they have on campuses to help athletes endure their struggles, it is only ever reactive, and it was not enough for what the athletes needed. College campuses need to find a way to proactively help student-athletes, to go beyond dispelling the negative, to build and strengthen the positive in this group of people that trust their school to help. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that mental health is an important topic of discussion among the athletic pool and preparing coaches, staff, and support groups to discuss these issues openly and to make sure that the people who surround student-athletes expand their knowledge in Positive Psychology and implement it into each athlete’s life.
Through years of research in clinical depression, Martin Seligman saw an opportunity for psychologist to extend their help to the entirety of the population. Seligman believed that everyone could benefit from reinforcing skills of positive resilient thinking, not just people with mental pathologies (Compton and Hoffman 2012). This led him to push the movement of positive psychology to build research on “what makes life most worth living”. Eliminating or reducing problems are just one way to improve the human condition. Focusing on positive experiences, positive character traits, and positive institution are other areas of focus that improve the human condition. Along with these areas of focus, Seligman identified more components of a life well-lived. Seligman’s theory of well-being, PERMA, includes five significant elements: Positive emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. Each component factors independently in contributing to well-being and is sought for intrinsic purposes (Compton and Hoffman 2012). PERMA, and other discoveries similar to it, provide a framework for people to become more conscious of ways they can examine their own well-being, and illuminate simple pathways to improve their lives. The positive psychology framework is important for evaluating the needs of many populations, and specifically focusing on collegiate student-athletes in this research paper.
More than 460,000 students participate in NCAA collegiate athletics every year. This student athlete population is subject to unique variety of stressors that can compromise their well-being, including arduous athletic, academic, and social demands (Wolanin 2016). This research suggests that in addition to education and other extracurricular activities, college student-athletes typically spend more than 40 hours per week participating in sport-related activities, which cumulatively can lead to increased physical and psychological exhaustion. According to Wolanin et al. study on elevated depressive symptoms in college athletes, the rates of depression among athletes highlights the need for increased mental health screening for athletes as part of standard sports medicine care (Wolanin 2016). Prior research in this area has recognized the problem with collegiate athletes and mental health yet few studies have given thought to the important of continuing to discuss these issues openly to ensure that people who surround student-athletes are equipped to handle their unique mental health challenges. The volume of environmental stressors in college athletics, including academic pressure, time management, sports performance, sleep deprivation, coaching styles, potential injury, and social interaction can make athletes vulnerable to multiple mental health risks factors. On top of this, adapting to an independent lifestyle away from home, and forming new relationships, can be mentally unnerving. It becomes tougher when the sport you have always enjoyed playing becomes a stressor due to performance pressure, and constant evaluation by coaching staff and teammates. More attention needs to be directed at student athletes by adopting ideas of positive psychology in the future practice of people in their support system—not only coaches and trainer but limited to staff they see frequently in their collegiate career.
Collegiate athletes are subjected to a wide variety of environmental stressor and to compound this, research from Anderson and Williams (1988) states that many of the psychology disruptions that athletes experience may be predictors of injury. They proposed that athletes that have a history of stressful life events, personality characteristics that exacerbate stress, and few coping resources are more likely to exhibit greater attentional disruptions during stressful situations. The increased patterns of activation and disruption have been proposed to be mechanisms for greater injury risk (Anderson and Williams, 1988). Injuries are unavoidable in sport participation, and while many are minor, causing little to no detriment to an athlete’s physical or mental state, major injuries can trigger a psychological response that unmask serious mental health issues. In their study following the recovery of injured athletes, Anderson and Williams (1988) found that during early phases of rehabilitation, athletes expressed frustration and depression due to incapacitation and the consequent disruption of normal function and sport involvement. Throughout their recovery process, depression was linked to a negative appraisal of rehabilitation success, leading to apathy and poor adherence to treatment. Increased impatience to return to their sport was the main instigator of frustration and depression. It is critical to understand the role that physical activity plays on psychological health and the disparities that exists within athletics. Majority of the literature on physical activity state the positive correlation with exercise with positive effects on psychological health (i.e. life satisfaction, emotional satisfaction, quality of life, sleep quality, and energy levels). However, despite the potential psychological benefits of physical activity and exercise, collegiate student athletes are still heavily prone to mental illness. Previous studies in this field state that collegiate student-athletes are jut as likely as the general population to experience depression and other mental health issues (Reardon & Factor 2010). In Cox’s (2015) most recent study of 950 NCAA Division 1 student-athletes, there has been a recent increase in reported depressive symptoms amongst athletes. 33.2% of athletes experienced symptoms of depression in this study. Athletes with higher rates of depression were more likely to be underclassmen, female, recently injured, or currently in the competitive season (Cox 2015). To address the difficult state of mental health in college athletics, it will be necessary to introduce elements of positive psychology to help athletes improve coping strategies to provide proactive treatment.
Athletes and Counseling
Unfortunately, in the athletic world, which idolizes mental toughness, perseverance, and strength, there is a stigma attached to poor mental health, and athletes fear that coaches and administration may not be supportive of their struggles. In my experience, coaches often advise my teammates and I to treat our emotional distress the same way we would treat our physical pain. Quotes like “its temporary” and “shake it off” are comments that are frequently made in the athletic world from coaches to athletes. The collegiate athletics organization should work toward reducing stigma related to mental health in order to encourage athletes to seek the help they may need. The current practices in universities attempt to promote positive mental health but this is usually following a tragic incident, making to reactive rather than proactive. Collegiate athletics organization need to prioritize helping athletes make their individual lives better and emphasizing a normal and successful life. Emphasizing resilience, self-regulation and self-efficacy, emotional intelligence and self-awareness through character strengths can create a positive environment where athletes can flourish and encourages positive well-being.
Applying Positive Psychology
Resilience is simply the ability to bounce back from adversity and to grow from daily challenges. As discussed in class, the Penn Resiliency Project primary goal is to increase student’s ability to handle everyday problems and teaches optimism through cognitive flexibility. Resilient children have better intellectual skills and self-esteem, but the most powerful predictor was self-regulation, both cognitive and emotional. Activities that can develop such skills may be critical to coping with and overcoming a potentially negative environment. Building resilience in college athletes could prove beneficial for athletic and academic performance, leading to greater overall well-being. Collegiate athletic organizations can utilize this construct of positive psychology fairly easily in the attempt to address the current dilemma in college athletes. Since resilience is a way of thinking that can be taught and can be learned as a skill, a simple step of preparing athletic staff or hiring a sports psychologist to implement this construct can help student-athletes persevere through adversity.
Being able to override and change your responses to specific circumstances through the ability to control your thoughts and feelings and being able to sense that you will be able to do something if you put in the effort are important ingredients in building resilience. A functional self-regulation process allows an individual to believe their emotions can be altered, while possessing the consciousness to monitor moods and emotions accurately. This is important in the process of destigmatizing mental illness because it helps create the association that negative emotions and help-seeking are not weaknesses, but rather strengths in the process of remaining resilient through adversity. Student-athletes ability to identify and regulate moods and emotions during stressful situations can be essential to success and well-being. Along with self-regulation comes self-efficacy. Resilient people understand their strengths and weakness, and through applying their strengths towards self-awareness leads to a development in self-efficacy beliefs. Self-efficacy helps influence the integration of positive interventions that promote healthy behaviors, weaken unhealthy behaviors, and maintain favorable adaptations. Without self-efficacy, student-athletes may lack the belief that they are capable of changing their own behaviors, and therefore might not even try to attain their goals. Both self-efficacy and self-regulation are important ingredients in building resilience in athletes and promotes higher levels of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize the meanings of emotions and their relationships and to reason and problem solve on the basis of them. Emotional intelligence is involved in the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion related feelings, and to be able to understand the information of those emotions and manage them. Through emotional intelligence, it may be that a person has some measure of self-awareness regarding the interaction between their thoughts and feelings and modify their responses for more positive outcomes. Student-athletes can benefit from emotional intelligence by learning to use their emotions to facilitate cognition, as well as motivate themselves to change their behavior. It broadens and build an athlete’s coping skills, allowing them to approach their problems rationally and effectively, and perceive a potentially stressful event as a challenge rather than as a threat.
Broadening and building positive emotions can increase a person’s awareness of their psychological strengths which can help people recover from psychological problems. In the beginning of this semester, our class was assigned the Values in Action survey, which classifies strengths using a common language of personality traits inherent to every human being. People who frequently use their signature strengths may ultimately make more progress on their goals and have higher overall well-being because they are making a choice to make their strengths stronger rather than dwell on their weaknesses. Student athletes can potentially derive benefit from this survey because it influences athletes to use their strengths to set goals towards desired performances outcomes in injury recovery, optimizing performance, and other environmental stressors they deal with in their daily life. Using strengths to navigate difficulties can be useful for student-athletes, through the identification of their positive attributes that can resolve problems and stressful events.
Directing their attention towards positive aspects can lead to an increase in self-awareness through mindfulness. Mindfulness is choosing to pay attention to one’s own ongoing experience in a way that allows openness and flexibility. The conscious observation of one’s physical, mental, and emotional experience in the present moment requires paying attention to these bodily feelings without judgment. The practice of mindfulness meditation can help collegiate athletes increase their positive emotional states, enable them to focus their attention on conscious self-awareness and goal setting, and avoid negative and unhelpful habitual responses.
Although positive psychology may be one of the best tools for supporting psychological well-being in collegiate athletes, the educational curriculum used in counseling sessions and among coaches and staff do not include positive psychology interventions. Positive psychology is an effective, proactive approach to support psychological well-being that is relatively simple to learn and implement into universities across the nation. The culture that coaches and their staff create can be a determinant of the psychological well-being of athletes. Having a support system for athletes can create an atmosphere that has the potential to lower stress improving the quality of student athletes’ experience and their level of success. Being a student-athlete, I understand the everyday battle of balancing academics, athletics, and my social life at a Division 1 university. I strongly believe that if more funding was put into proactive approaches to help student-athletes deal with everyday stressors then their overall subjective well-being will increase. I don’t see any negatives to adding sports psychologist in every university in order to prevent events like Madison Holleran and Mary Cain from occurring again. The current environment of college athletics is not doing enough to address the mental health issues arising in student-athletes and continuing to take a reactive approach to this sensitive topic will result in more heartbreaks.
- Compton, W. C., & Hoffman, E. (2012). Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, 2: 1-22. Jon-David Hague.
- Cox, C. (2015). Investigating the Prevalence and Risk-Factors of Depression Symptoms among NCAA Division I Collegiate Athletes. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
- Reardon, C. L. (2010). Sport Psychiatry: A Systematic Review of Diagnosis and Medical Treatment of Mental Illness in Athletes. Sports Medicine, 40(11), pp. 961-980. doi:10.2165/11536580-000000000-00000
- Williams, J. M. (1998). Psychosocial antecedents of sport injury: Review and critique of the stress and injury model. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10(1), pp. 5-25. doi:10.1080/10413209808406375
- Wolanin A, Hong E, Marks D, et al. (2016) Prevalence of clinically elevated depressive symptoms in college athletes and differences by gender and sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50:167-171.