Athletes at all levels put in countless hours to prepare themselves for their competitions.
Much of that work happens behind the scenes, whether it is early-morning runs, weight lifting or film study to name a few. However, one area that is increasingly becoming a priority for athletes is something that can’t be measured so easily — mental health.
“Mental health as an athlete can be difficult, and it’s something you really have to prioritize,” said Breia Mayes, a 2022 Selinsgrove graduate, who is preparing for her freshman cross-country season at Millersville. “It’s the No. 1 thing.”
As with the other aspects of preparation, having good mental health requires work.
“It’s like any bone, any ligament, any muscle that (needs to be exercised),” Penn State women’s soccer goalkeeper Katherine Asman said.
“It’s really important for athletes to take care of their mental health,” said Braeden Fausnaught, a Danville graduate, who is currently a Philadelphia Phillies’ minor leaguer.
For student-athletes especially, the pressures of juggling academics and athletics at a high level can add stress on top of typical mental health issues.
“There’s a lot — peer pressure, performance is another thing, life anxiety,” said Susquehanna strength and conditioning coach David Kitchen, who has a master’s degree in sports pyschology. “The amount of stimulus today’s student-athletes are exposed to is something that we can’t relate to as an older generation. There can be burn out and feeling overwhelmed.
“We want to find the markers before something happens. They deal with the regular spectrum of mental health issues, and when I was a student I did my master’s thesis on student-athletes being at a higher risk.”
That’s part of why Kitchen wants to make sure all of Susquehanna’s student-athletes know he is available.
“Our strength and conditioning coach (David Kitchen) talks to us daily about our mental health,” said Katie Bucher, a Selinsgrove graduate, who is set for her junior season as a River Hawks field hockey player. “In our app that we use to put in our weights for our lifts, we have a mental health survey that we complete everyday.”
While filling out the mental health survey is completely voluntary, it can provide an easy way for someone to reach out to Kitchen. In addition to physical things such as monitoring sleep, hydration and meals, there survey also includes a section for the student-athletes to rate their mood and stress.
“If they need someone to talk to, I’m available,” Kitchen said. “The survey is a way — if they don’t feel comfortable approaching me — they can fill out the survey, and I can reach out to see if they want to chat.”
That can be valuable for people who live a different day-to-day life than many others on campus.
“Student-athletes live a different life than everybody else, to be completely honest,” Asman said.
“The scrutiny that we’re placed under, the challenges that we face in everything that we do. The idea that we’re continuously under a microscope.”
Student-athletes made the decision to play a sport in addition to their other responsibilities, but it does limit other opportunities on campus.
“Your time and your sacrifices to be an athlete — you go to classes from 8-3, and then it’s right to practice until 7 o’clock, shower, eat, do homework and repeat — can be a struggle and really dampen your mental health if you don’t make it a priority,” Bucher said.
That’s on top of the pressure — internal or external — to perform athletically as well as in the classroom.
“There’s a lot of pressure that comes with athletics,” Bucher said. “As an athlete in general, your mindset is you want to win and you want to perform well. Sometimes when that’s not happening, it can be a really big struggle on your mental health.”