Mental Health in Student Athletes: How to Effectively Balance Schoolwork with Academic Responsibilities.

College can be challenging sometimes. This holds true for all kinds of students regardless of what their major is or what kinds of classes they are taking. Many students are left to balance their academic responsibilities with extracurricular activities such as clubs, campus organizations, or on and off campus employment. This work can be vital to ensuring that students have as full a college experience as possible, and is important to highlight on resumes and applications for post-collegiate opportunities.

For student athletes in particular, balancing these two aspects of collegiate life can be especially difficult. A busy in season schedule combined with academic demands put athletes in a unique situation where tension between these two extremes can lead to increased stress and anxiety.

“I do think athletes have some unique mental health concerns” said Elon University Exercise Science Professor Eric Hall. “They are trying to be high achieving as both a student and as an athlete. I think when you have tension trying to be good at multiple things its really hard to balance that sometimes”

For many athletes, balancing athletic responsibilities with academic ones can pose a unique challenge

A 2015 study found that nearly 20% of student athletes suffered from some form of depression, which suggests athletes may be more likely to suffer from mental health issues than other students on college campuses. Some of the most common health issues recorded in college athletes included depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and strains in relationships with friends and family from busy schedules and demanding responsibilities. In recent years, colleges have sought to increase the presence of counselors and other mental health professionals to work with athletes as well as the student body as a whole. Hall believes that this is an important step to increase awareness of these issues and be able to work with athletes on a personal level.

“I’m a believer that you need to have a sound mind and a sound body to be really good at your sport, and anything you can do to make people healthier on the field, whether that’s having a sports nutritionist or sports psychologist I would obviously be all for” Hall said, adding that Elon University has added a sports psychologist and sports nutritionist to their athletic staff.

A NCAA report found that a handful of schools have invested in adding full time sports psychologists to their staff, specializing in individual care and counseling, staff education, and acting as a liaison between athletic departments and administration about the psychological care issues that a particular athletic department may face. However, this has been a slow growing field due to several factors, including limited resources, a lack of mental health professional qualified to understand the unique needs of student athletes, and the stigma athletes can face at times that equates that they need to show strength and minimize showing signs of struggle. Furthermore, in many places there is a lack of distinction between a traditional psychologist and one specialized in sports psychology.

One of the primary issues of stress athletes can face is managing the difficulties of practicing, training, and staying prepared with keeping up with schoolwork and maintaining a good academic standing. Research has shown that college athletes usually have to spend three times as much times focusing on athletics compared to academics, and most schools require student athletes to maintain a certain grade point average in order to retain their athletic eligibility.

Time management is a crucial skill for any athlete working to balance these two difficult aspects of college life together. For many athletes, the day begins with classes and ends with film and workouts.

“During the season, it’s usually waking up, getting some food, and then getting to our classes . . . And then after we head to the gym” said a current Division I basketball player who was interviewed for this story. ” He added that following class, the team would practice, watch film, lift, or get treatments.

Kelley Gunn, a former Division III baseball pitcher interviewed for this story recommends that athletes carefully plan out their time in order to best balance these demands with schoolwork. “I was really heavy into the planner type stuff so a lot of times I would look 3-4 weeks ahead of time to see if I had to do something” said Gunn. “I could put it in this time slot because I would know what my academic stuff was and none of my athletic stuff would change.” He recommends that in addition to time management, it is important for athletes to build a relationship with their professors and figure out what times of the day they can be most productive.

“Everyone is a bit different” said Gunn. “Some people work better at night after you are done with practice and some people work better in the morning before class starts.”

Eric Hall agrees that the best tip for college athletes looking for balance athletic responsibilities with academic ones is time management combined with enough down time and rest to be able to have proper self care. “Probably the most important thing for them to be the least stressed is just trying to make sure they create time for their sport, make sure they create time for academics but then also to make sure they have time for themselves as well.” said Hall.

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