More Than Just Exercise: The Complex Relationship Between Athletics and Mental Health

For athletes, sports aren't just exercise; they're a way of life (Photo by Patrick Smoker).

When it comes to mental health, athletes face unique challenges.

An article published by The Detroit Free Press on Feb. 16 explored not only these challenges, but the way in which these challenges are dealt with throughout the state of Michigan at the collegiate level. The article took the approach of analyzing the issue on a biographical level, something that quickly became very personal for Albion College as a whole.

Among other profiles, Zach Winston’s story was prominently featured in the article.

“Too many young adults are killing themselves: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students,” wrote Detroit Free Press sports columnist Jeff Seidel, author of the article. “Zachary Winston brought it back into the national spotlight when he died by suicide at Albion College.”

Seidel’s words were a sharp reminder that Winston was anything but alone in his struggles. Athletes just like Winston have struggled and continue to struggle both on and off Albion’s campus.

Insight on the Issues

It goes without saying that the mental health issues athletes face go beyond simple nerves prior to a game, match or meet. Like anyone else, athletes are susceptible to crippling anxiety, depression, eating disorders and more, but all of these issues can be, and often are, exacerbated by the sports they love so much.

The positive impacts of exercise on mental health, derived mainly from its ability to help the body release serotonin and endorphins, are well-known. But sports aren’t just exercise

Cross country runners don’t complete ten mile workouts just for fun. Swimmers don’t wake up at 5 a.m. to lift just because they want to. Lacrosse players don’t get up early for ladder sprints and drills just to do it. Although more days than not, athletes love what they do, but there’s an additional layer to athletics that makes it much more complex than simple exercise.

Pushing oneself to go the extra mile or wake up before sunrise some days is a requirement for improvement, and that improvement, that desire to be the best of the best, is a strong motivational force for any athlete.

When things are going well, when workouts feel easy and months of dedication lead to visible results, athletes might feel like they’re on top of the world. Despite this, amid other concerns, there’s always the threat of injury lingering in the background, the worry that all of an athlete’s hard work and accomplishments could be swept away in a single instant. 

Division I and II athletes face the additional pressure of performing well enough to receive scholarship money, and circumstances like injuries can swiftly erase any chance an athlete has of receiving that money. While scholarships aren’t a concern for athletes from Division III schools like Albion, injuries are.

The complexity of athlete mental health, however, goes far beyond the possibility of a temporary injury, though it might feel permanent at the time of culmination. 

In addition to injuries, there’s the obvious yet overlooked pressure to perform well, whether money is involved or not. Athletes are constantly striving to better themselves in their respective sports, an attitude that often manifests on and off the court, track or field. 

It’s one thing to solely try to better oneself, but competition is an inevitable part of sports as well, one that can easily lead athletes to lead lives of constantly comparing themselves to others.

The pressure to be the best version of oneself and the best overall is unrelenting and overwhelming when it’s felt in all aspects of life. For many athletes, though, that’s reality.

Analyzing Impact

Data collected in the Spring 2019 National College Health Assessment (NCHA) found striking numbers in the general student population regarding anxiety and depression.

According to the NCHA, 24.3% of students were diagnosed with anxiety, and 65.7% claimed feeling overwhelming amounts of anxiety. 20% were diagnosed with depression, but 45.1% felt so depressed at times that they could not function. In addition, 13.3% had contemplated suicide, and 8.6% had engaged in self harm.

There is a disparity between the percentage of students who are diagnosed with anxiety and depression and those who experience major symptoms of the disorders. This data suggests that a large number of students in the general population who experience these symptoms don’t seek help. 

Meanwhile, a 2015 survey conducted by the NCAA found that 30% of college athletes felt “intractably overwhelmed during the past month,” a statistic that had increased significantly from the same survey in 2010. 

73% of athletes claimed that they felt their coaches cared about their mental health. Although this might seem like a high percentage at first glance, that means that over a quarter of all athletes don’t feel that way. Moreover, just 40% of athletes who sought treatment for a mental health issue were satisfied with said treatment.

The question, then, comes down to if students and student-athletes alike aren’t seeking help and treatment because they don’t want to, don’t know how to or don’t believe the resources available will be able to provide them with what they need.

Programs in Place

With 23 varsity sports teams on campus and over half of the student population participating in one or more of those sports, Albion has an obligation to make sure student athletes are receiving the recognition and support they need.

According to Chuck Carlson, Albion Director of Communications and Media Relations, the college has programs in place to help student-athletes specifically who might be struggling with mental health related issues. 

Following NCAA guidelines, Carlson claimed in The Detroit Free Press article, Albion partakes in screening new student-athletes and training the entirety of the athletic department to respond to athletes’ mental health issues when they observe any warning signs or symptoms.

Albion’s athletic training states that it “encompasses the prevention, diagnosis, and intervention of emergency, acute and chronic medical conditions involving impairment, functional limitations, and disabilities.” 

Given the intricate relationship between mental and physical health, any mental issues reported by a student athlete should be viewed no differently than the “chronic medical conditions” the athletic training staff is committed to addressing. Head athletic trainer Andy Lawrence said that Albion’s athletic training staff has been trained to take care of athletes whenever they are struggling, whether that means mentally, physically or both.

“I believe that Albion Student-Athletes are supported in this evolving issue that has taken a front step in the world of athletics,” said Lawrence. “The key to becoming even more successful is early recognition, early referrals, constant communication and openness for every Student-Athlete. We have gone through Mental Health First Aid courses where Athletic Trainers and coaches are now trained to help with our athletes, who are struggling.”

Despite that, some matters go beyond what athletic trainers are capable of handling, in which case Lawrence says the college is equipped with other options to deal with more serious matters.

“We are a resource for student-athletes because we work so closely with them and are very often the first person to learn about an athlete that is working on their mental health,” said Lawrence. “We may not have a direct solution to the issue, however, we know when and how to refer to the appropriate personnel. At Albion, we have an instant connection with Counseling Services and can provide intake forms to help speed up the process.”

In the Context of Coronavirus

With events being postponed, training being called into question and entire seasons being canceled, the taking care of athletes mentally is critical now more than ever. Behind every lost season, months of hard work and dedication loom dimly in the background, never to see the light of competition. Especially for graduating seniors, who may have been approaching their final seasons of collegiate athletics, the promise of a spring season has been broken.

The grief that athletes feel in light of these missed competitions and opportunities is valid. They are allowed to dwell on lost practices, lost time with their teams and lost seasons, something that might be difficult for non-athletes to understand.

The world is in the midst of a pandemic, and consequently, a canceled spring sports season might not seem detrimental to the average person; it just means that there’s less to watch on ESPN. But for athletes, this is a change in lifestyle. It’s a lost coping mechanism in a time where each person in the world is dependent on different coping mechanisms to make it through each day.

For athletes who struggle mentally, even without sports in their lives, pressure still exists. It is intrinsic, ingrained in athletes minds as a way of life, a normal way of thinking. Pressure still exists, but competition, oftentimes the outlet for that pressure, does not.

Preexisting mental health conditions are being tested on a global scale as Coronavirus sweeps through each continent. This is true for athletes as well. Despite athletics facilitating immense amounts of pressure that can feed into mental disorders, the swift removal of sports from athletes’ daily lives doesn’t alleviate these issues. If anything, it only exacerbates them further.

Normal life has changed, and people mourn that. Normal life for athletes includes practice. It includes competition. It includes 10 mile workouts and early morning lifts. Just as people mourn the loss of their daily lives, athletes are allowed to mourn the loss of theirs, even if their daily lives don’t resemble those of non-athletes.

The Takeaway

It is the onus of individual athletes to seek help when they need it, but help cannot be sought if it does not exist. If athletes don’t have direct access to resources that allow for this help they find themselves in a problematic situation where their needs cannot be met. 

At that point, it is up to the college to make sure these athletes not only feel not only that they can seek help, but that they should seek help. A simple way to ensure this is by not only providing services for athletes, but making sure that these services are known about and are readily available. 

There are many reasons why athletes, and people in general, don’t reach out to get help when they’re struggling. Sometimes it’s pride. Sometimes it’s fear. And sometimes, it’s not knowing that help even exists. 

The mental health issues that athletes face are not more important or greater than the mental health issues faced by the general population. They are, however, commonly misunderstood and underrepresented, thereby making proper treatment harder to find. 

“I believe Albion College, like all schools, is continuing to be open about how to help every student, and in our case in the Athletic Dept, every Student Athlete every way that we can,” said Lawrence.

On Albion’s campus and across the NCAA, treatment for mental health exists; it’s just not always known about or easily accessible. When it comes to the mental health of athletes, the conversation needs to change. The issue is ever evolving and ever changing, and with that, programs for treatment need to change as well, something Lawrence says is a work in progress.

“I believe that we are working very well at various levels of not only the College, but also within the NCAA and at a federal level to come up with creative and effective solutions that will help for years to come,” said Lawrence. 

The system is not perfect, but it’s in a state of change, one which will hopefully evolve to be the most effective it can be to aiding athletes who might be struggling with any variety of mental health related issues. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help, whether that’s at the collegiate level or not. Resources exist to help athletes and the general population get the help they need. It’s a matter of advertising those resources and utilizing them when their availability is known.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1(800) 273-8255 (
  • Mental Health Association in Michigan: (248) 647-1711
  • Summit Point – 24 Hour Crisis: 1(800) 632-5449
  • Summit Point Youth Mobile Crisis Team: (269) 441-5945
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 74174
About Jordan Revenaugh 80 Articles
Jordan Revenaugh is a senior from Rochester, Michigan. An aspiring journalist and author, she is a double major in psychology and English with a creative writing concentration. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of the Pleiad, Jordan runs cross country and track, is a part of Delta Gamma and InterVarsity, and is a dedicated avocado enthusiast.

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