For Ally Anderson, playing NCAA Div. 1 beach volleyball was a dream since she was a high school sophomore. She joined ACU’s fledgling beach volleyball team in the fall of 2019 with optimism.
That excitement turned to disappointment, she said, because the experience was nothing like she expected. Anderson said the conditions she subjected to were detrimental to her mental health and she did not feel support and care from her coaches and teammates. By the end of her freshman year, Anderson had quit the team, and the next year, she left school.
“It was so much more a job,” Anderson said, “not an activity.”
Anderson is now a recruiting coordinator at an EMS school in Abilene and said she has not looked back since 2020.
The increase in competitiveness and busy schedules at the college level – especially in Div. 1 – can damage athletes’ mental health. The Department of Athletics is working toward having athletes be more open about what they are going through on a daily basis.
Cory Driskill, senior associate athletic director for sports performance, said trainers take on the role of making sure athletes are physically and mentally feeling good.
“Through our relationships as athletic trainers with our student-athletes, this is one of the things I try to preach to our staff, is keeping the pulse of what their mental state is,” Driskill said. “We are not only concerned about their physical state but also mentally, sleep patterns and nutrition. It’s all something we need to pay attention to.”
Immanuel Allen, a junior guard on the men’s basketball team from Phoenix, Arizona, said the intensity of his coaches negatively affected him early in his career.
“I was so worried about trying to do everything perfectly and not make mistakes because I didn’t want to get yelled at,” Allen said.
A study by the American College of Sports Medicine reported that about 30% of female and 25% of male student-athletes suffer from collegiate mental health challenges.
The study describes the challenges as “pressures from academics, as well as other possible triggers of stress. These triggers include missed classes due to off-campus sports competitions, being away from home for the first time, social isolation from students other than their teammates, and adapting to constant visibility within their campus and communities.”
Moreover, the pressures to perform well in their sport and well in the public eye causes challenges for athletes’ mental health, according to the ACSM.
None of this surprises Allen, who said student-athletes face pressures typical student don’t.
“As a student-athlete, a lot of times I feel people get our lives misconstrued,” he said. “Yes we do have more of a public persona than others, but that comes with early morning practices, grueling weight sessions, long afternoon practices, film, study hall and, not to mention, how the homework and expectations are exceeded in the classroom.”
Driskill said coaches want a tough mindset but have lost sight of the extent to which their athletes are dealing with challenges of busy weeks. Not being seen or heard by their coaches can weigh in on performance and overall health, he said.
The NCAA created a four-hour limit on the amount of allowed daily practice time and a 20-hour limit per week. Before 2000, these rules weren’t consistently enforced. This changed when two football players from the University of North Carolina filed a lawsuit against their 30-50-hour week schedule.
The lawsuit argued the athletes were deprived of “meaningful education” due to the unequal balance of time with their school work and their sport. The NCAA investigated their case by identifying the loopholes found in the 20-hour rule, like making workouts “voluntary” even though they effectively were mandatory.
The ACSM said exercise increases endorphins in the body that naturally produce hormones that make active people feel happier.
“However, playing sports does not make athletes immune to mental health challenges,” they said.
Megan McDonald, sports academic coordinator, said she believes athletes want to be cared about and valued by their coaches.
“All coaches have high standards and expect these things, but some might not pour into the athletes spiritually and mentally,” McDonald said.
With a schedule as packed as 20 hours a week to their sport, McDonald said athletes she works with are stressed and overworked even when it might not look like it.
“They have those straight A’s, but they are so overwhelmed,” McDonald said.
Athletes are encouraged to get eight hours of sleep and excel in the classroom but are forced to often choose between the two. Anderson said she found herself prioritizing her sleep over education.
“I didn’t want to focus on school and instead focused on getting my eight hours of sleep so I could perform better,” Anderson said.
Along with the pressure to succeed in their sport and the classroom, social life is just as important to students’ mental health.
In early March, Katie Meyers, a 22-year old standout soccer player at Stanford University, made national headlines when she took her own life. The decision was attributed to the lack of sleep, social life, study time and self-worth student-athletes often deal with.
Responding to Meyers’ passing, Gwen Schemm, a retired soccer player at Frostburg State University, said in a post on Instagram that student-athletes can be perceived only as “living the dream” despite those challenges.
“You live a facade of perfection when inside your world is crumbling,” she said. “You don’t want to be rejected or be treated as weak. You don’t want to lose your starting spot or, worse, your scholarship.”
McDonald said higher-achieving academic athletes often put effort into school and their sport resulting in no outside social life.
Kolton Kohl, a retired men’s basketball player from San Angelo, said it was a challenge trying to find time to hang out with friends but he chose to prioritize sports. Kohl said he realized sports will end but the people in your life will be there forever.
“You are going to want people there to hangout with and have a good time when you’re not playing sports anymore,” he said.
Women’s soccer player Samantha Brown said she became so consumed with her performances because her life had been swallowed with how good her athletic performances are for the past 15 years.
“I caused myself to put a lot of my worth in whether or not I am seeing success in my sport,” said Brown. “You put so much time and effort into an activity, it becomes consuming.”
McDonald, the academic coordinator who is also a former student-athlete, said she struggled mentally without even knowing it when playing softball at Sam Houston State University from 2017 to 2021.
“I had to realize these things don’t ultimately define me,” McDonald said. “Once I realized that, I was able to just go out and enjoy the sport.”
To help with this stigma of mental health in Div. 1 athletes, some athletes say it first needs to be acknowledged and talked about more openly.
The athletic trainers once a semester send out a survey asking questions that gauge mental health problems. Driskill will contact those who show red flags and offer to help them get the assistance they need if they ask for it.
“People are talking about it more, and they are becoming more accepting towards it,” Driskill said.
In previous times, the stigma made athletes feel like they had to push things to the side to “be tough,” Driskill said.
Allen said athletes should spread awareness to those in authority who are able to speak up for their overworked players. McDonald is determined to make this happen as the sports academic coordinator.
“Sharing experiences is the best way,” McDonald said. “As a retired athlete, I have been in their shoes. Letting them know this is not the end of the world, this is not who you are, this is just what you do.”
McDonald sits down with athletes and helps them plan out their daily schedule, encouraging free time for fun activities.
Kohl said receiving the well-deserved rest would help athletes’ bodies recover mentally and physically.
“I feel like many athletes are working hard every day at their craft to get better and win, like coming back from a long road trip and getting home late and waking up early for class. You’re not getting the rest of your body,” Kohl said.
Allen said being in the right headspace physically and mentally is what athletes need in order to perform to the best of their ability. McDonald agrees. In order to enjoy a sport, athletes must have the right mindset mentally.
“Good mental health lets athletes be able to separate the bad practices from their outside life,” McDonald said.
McDonald said athletes tend to let negatives spiral into their daily routines. It is important to find a way to separate the double lives, she said.
Allen has found a way to use his sports as way to create peace in his outside life.
“I can always just go to the gym, listen to music loud on the big speaker and get shots up and leave the outside world outside, he said. “It has helped me clear my head a lot in the past.”
Div. 1 athletes go through the daily challenge of their mental side. As a retired athlete, Kohl has used the strength he has gained in the real world.
“I am stronger for sure; it pushed me to become a strong-minded person. As far as pushing myself to limits in the classroom and on the court, I’ve had to learn time-management,” Kohl said.
Sports have become a lot more competitive and serious at the D1 level. Coaches’ intensity has pushed these athletes to be mentally tough, preparing them ready and stronger for the real world.
Ally Anderson felt if she was supported by her coaches and teammates she would have stayed longer.
“I not only want to play for myself but also the people who truly believe in me,” Anderson said.