Mental health affects everyone, and student athletes are no exception. The constant challenge of juggling academics with athletics adds additional stress to two already difficult tasks.
One of the things that makes sports so difficult is pressure to succeed. Athletes are generally competitive to begin with, and playing for a varsity team, holding a team leadership position, or having made it through tryouts to be on a team only heightens that desire and pressure to win. Junior Jake Murray (he/him) said losing service games, which are tennis games in which he gets to serve, makes him feel especially stressed.
“It’s a major setback for the score and your mentality. And when I do that, I feel like I should’ve done better. I can feel like I’m falling behind my opponent, and the thought of trying to catch up makes it more stressful,” said Murray.
Athletes can feel stressed or upset about a game before it even takes place. The anticipation and fear of losing that build up before a competition is enough to take a toll on any athlete. Senior captain of the cross country team and track distance runner Ava Jones (she/her) said she starts getting nervous about her races days in advance.
“I’m constantly thinking about it up until the race. Then when it comes to like an hour before my race, I get very jittery and that’s because I sometimes struggle with panic attacks at the beginning of my races,” said Jones.
Pressure to win isn’t the only stressor that comes with sports. High school athletics are time consuming, leaving athletes with fewer chances to spend time with friends and get the full teenage experience. Senior girls varsity swim and dive captain Laney Brackett (she/her) has swim practice at 5:15 in the mornings, school during the day, swim club practice after school (before she recently quit), along with homework and other responsibilities when she gets home.
“I wake up, go to school and by the time I’m in third period, I’m literally like, head down on my desk asleep and I’m trying to stay awake,” said Brackett.
With so much of her day eaten up by school and swimming, Brackett said she started to feel like she was missing out on other things, such as spending time with friends.
“I get a lot of FOMO, like fear of missing out. I don’t swim club anymore–I quit last year. But all throughout high school, like on Friday nights I’d want to go out with friends and stuff or go to parties on Saturday nights, you know, do stuff like that. But I always had a commitment to swimming and that always came first because it was my priority. I would definitely say that was like a hard con, but it taught me discipline.” said Brackett.
While the combination of sports and academics often take up too much room on a student athlete’s plate, sometimes sports alone can be too much. Jones said during the off season, she’s surprised with the amount of time she has on her hands without having practices and races to go to.
Just because sports add to the already heavy workload of student athletes doesn’t mean they aren’t beneficial in some ways. For Jones, sports helps her take her mind off school when it’s making her stressed.
“Last year, school was very rough for me mentally, and cross country and track practice were like the only times where I had a break from those anxious thoughts. Even though there was stress that accompanied those sports as well, I definitely did better in those sports because it gave me a distraction,” said Jones.
There are ways to manage the stress that comes with student athletics. Sports teams are just that, teams, often providing a sense of camaraderie and a support network for their members. Jones said she’s able to alleviate stress by talking to her teammates before a match, or by talking to her father, who’s also her coach, about what’s bothering her.
“I’m very open with him about mental health. Both of my parents know a lot about what I’m struggling with and my mental health in general, but he’s very familiar with racing because he did cross country on track in high school. He helps remind me of the goals of the race and to loosen me up a little bit and helped me refocus my mind a little bit on the more important things than just getting super nervous,” said Jones.
Brackett said that even though there are some negatives that come with swimming, being a part of the team has helped her build a lot of friendships and given her access to a support system.
“At the end of the day, if you really love the sport, it’s a safe place that you can go and you like to go. You do kind of look forward to it, even if you kind of dread it too.”