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Athletes & Mental Health: Two Changes We Need to Make

You may remember Tyler Hilinski, the Washington State University quarterback who took his own life last January. His football team took a knee as they launched a new season this year—visually acknowledging their fallen teammate, and further shining a spotlight on a significant and growing issue for student athletes:

The mental health crisis.

Certainly, athlete suicides are not new, but the frequency that anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts occur among young athletes is expanding.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “College students in general are reporting more depression and anxiety than ever. Division 1 athletes cope with those issues while under a spotlight and while balancing studies with time-intensive training. Alongside weight rooms and nutrition programs, mental-health services are growing into indispensable parts of major-college athletic departments.”

More and more Division 1 athletic departments are hiring part-time or full-time mental health specialists. Some employ multiple staff members and doctoral students to tend to the needs of athletes today, who suffer from chronic anxiety, depression and feeling overwhelmed. We’re honored to collaborate with Joe Castiglione, the VP and Director of Athletics at the University of Oklahoma. He’s invited Dr. Cody Commander to serve as their Director of Psychological Resources. Cody says that about 30 percent of their athletes enter with sports performance issues and 70 percent have depression or anxiety-related issues related to the time demands and pressure of being a varsity athlete.

Wow. That’s a large percentage in my opinion.

Two Changes We Must Make

Robin Scholefield, who started the Sports Psychology Services at the University of Southern California and still supervises them, said that, years ago, college athletes’ anxiety typically centered on competition. Today, it’s a variety of performance issues gone crazy; it’s overwhelmed athletes at the mercy of social media and parental pressure, pushing their kid to make the grade, make the cut, make the team and later, make the money. The magnified emphases we’ve placed on playing sports have put students’ mental health in jeopardy. Because the changes in students today are both external and internal, our solutions need to be as well. Just like we offer strength and conditioning physically, coaches and staff can equip students to “control the controllables”—on the outside and on the inside, mentally.

Internal Changes

Here are some examples of internal changes student athletes can make:

  • Plan for margins. Silence and reflection are huge steps. While their phone is off, filling their time with quiet reflection and gratitude will help their brains.
  • Preparing for sleep. The soft glow of a screen (tablet, phone, laptop) fools our brains into thinking it’s daytime. They should not be viewing a screen an hour before sleep time. Getting a full eight hours will improve their peace of mind.
  • Practicing mindfulness. There are many versions they can practice, but essentially, they each involve breathing, focusing, even meditation for as little as one minute. This kind of discipline can quiet and strengthen them.

External Changes

Let me offer some examples of external changes they can make:

  • Turn off the smart phone and take the ear buds out. Building specific margins with 4-6 hours away from phones daily can give them a definite advantage.
  • See a counselor regularly. It may sound cliché, but meeting with professionals to guide them in their thinking can give them a tangible edge.
  • Participate in service projects. Either local or international projects get their minds off of themselves, and it offers perspective to student athletes.
  • Avoid certain social media platforms. We civilize social media by rejecting platforms that cause angst or depression. They will know which ones do this.

This year, I created a free e-book detailing four specific steps students must take to regain their peace of mind and combat anxiety. I call it: “Stressed Out.” I suggest you discuss these steps with them. Click here to download it.

Also, we created courses to launch conversations that equip students to be leaders rather than victims of today’s culture. Habitudes for Athletes® is a system to help students and staff think well, and organize their lives. It quite literally enables them to be principle-centered leaders. It places a compass inside of them that guides and guards them. To check it out, click here.


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Athletes & Mental Health: Two Changes We Need to Make