Back to School Without Sports: What it Means for Athletes’ Mental Health
Submitted by Amy Gooding, Psy.D.
College athletes are facing unprecedented challenges in 2020. This past spring, hopes of championship seasons suddenly ended and college athletes were sent home, away from their campuses, teammates and friends. Many seniors were left wondering if they should stay an extra year to attend graduate school in order to finish out an athletic career they had planned for their entire lives. Other student athletes had to decide to move on without the proper closure they deserved after so much devotion to their sport.
In many parts of the country, underclassmen were left wondering and hoping for months about their fall seasons resuming, only to learn recently that another season would be cancelled. This uncertainty and disappointment can amount to anxiety and depression not only for those predisposed to these disorders, but for those who have never experienced mental health issues before. After college athletics were cancelled in late March, a study was conducted by the NCAA to assess the well-being of college athletes. That study found that the rates of mental health concerns were 150% to 250% higher than has been historically reported by NCAA student athletes in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (NCAA, 2020.
In pursuit of their athletic interests and goals, college athletes spend a considerable amount of time on their chosen sports. They have often made considerable sacrifices, practicing and competing every season for as long as they can remember. Their lives have been scheduled around their classes, training and games for many years. Due to the pandemic, they have been forced to drastically reduce this training over the last several months and are now facing another season without the sport they love.
This lack of structure, decrease in training and sudden change of plans can also contribute to the onset of eating disorders or relapse in those who’ve struggled previously. The University of North Texas Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence completed a study in collaboration with Wayne State University. In this study, it was reported that 29% of female student athletes reported disordered eating behaviors at the subclinical or clinical level between April and May 2020. The same study reported overall body dissatisfaction for 28% of male student athletes and 48% of female student athletes (Petrie, et al., 2020.)
When an athlete spends a significant amount of time and energy in a sport, it can become a major part of who they are and how they identify. Suddenly being unable to fulfill part of one’s identity like this can lead to increased anxiety, feelings of emptiness or even lack of motivation to engage in other interests. They can be left asking “Who am I if not an athlete?”, or even, “What is my purpose now?” Not knowing when seasons will resume may lead to some student athletes feeling helpless and potentially hopeless about their future. They may be struggling with the uncertainty of when they will be able to compete again or whether all their hard work was worth it. This uncertainty can lead to feeling “out of control” which is often a trigger for mental health difficulties. The NCAA reported that 27% of female student athletes and 14% of male student athletes reported feeling overwhelming anxiety after spring sports were cancelled (NCAA, 2020).
Those that are predisposed to anxiety and depression may struggle to cope with their thoughts and emotions. Some may even attempt to cope in harmful ways such as increased substance use, excessive exercise or self-harm. Unfortunately, many student athletes don’t have access to their usual support systems at a time when they need the most support. Most schools have moved to virtual learning and have limited access to college counseling centers. Coaches, sports medicine staff and the teammates – who often feel like family – may be far away. A concerning finding from spring student-athlete well-being research was that, of those student athletes who were engaged in mental health counseling prior to COVID shutdown of athletic departments, only about 33% continued that counseling (Petrie, et al., 2020).
As a competitive softball pitcher, a coach taught me something that, I only now understand, was a valuable life lesson. She told me that I did not have to strike everyone out. I was not alone out there on the field. She reminded me that my teammates were there to back me up. Coping with mental health issues is no different. You do not have to do it alone and evidence-based treatment is available in many forms. For example, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you identify and restructure negative thinking, learn relaxation strategies, improve problem solving, and learn and practice new coping skills.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) helps you learn to tolerate uncomfortable and intense emotions, engage in mindfulness and emotion regulation techniques and learn to navigate interpersonal situations effectively. You may even find that you are already using some of these skills in your athletic pursuits – treatment will help you apply them to other areas of life. If your season has been cancelled this fall and you are experiencing symptoms such as hopelessness, mood changes, panic attacks or disordered eating, now is the time to focus on getting the help you need. By addressing your mood, anxiety and/or eating disorder this fall, you may be able to return to your sport when it resumes with a clearer mind, stronger body and better overall health.
About the Author:
Amy Gooding, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist at Eating Recovery Center, Baltimore in Towson, Maryland. In addition to providing evidence-based psychotherapy to adolescents and adults, she offers specialized treatment for athletes within the program. Dr. Gooding has extensive training in cognitive-behavioral therapy and its application to eating disturbances and the psychology of sports. Her experience in these areas helped focus her career on the management of the unique needs of athletes with eating disorders. She received her Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) with a concentration in Sport Performance from La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Gooding provides trainings to mental health providers on the specialized treatment of athletes and eating disorders. She regularly presents to local high school and college athletes, coaches and sports medicine staff on the identification, prevention and treatment of athletes and eating disorders. In addition, Dr. Gooding provides ongoing consultation to university sports medicine staff on the mental health and well-being of student-athletes.
1. NCAA. (2020). NCAA student-athlete COVID-19 well-being survey: Survey results- May 2020. https://ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com/research/other/2020/2020RES_NCAASACOVID-19SurveyPPT.pdf
2. Petrie, T.A., Moore, E.W., Palmateer, T., Slavin, L. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 on college student athletes’ health, performance, and psychological well-being: An executive summary on baseline data. https://sportpsych.unt.edu/sites/default/files/covid_executive_summary.final2.july8.2020.pdf