Are College Athletes Under More Stress Than the Average Adult?

College students can deal with stressors surrounding every part of their lives. College student-athletes face unique stressors and potentially triggering situations that non-athletes can more easily avoid. This can be because they have to deal with time management, missing classes due to sports requirements, risk of burnout, fear of failure, team dynamics, anxiety, depression and other issues. There are approximately a half million collegiate student-athletes in the NCAA. According to an NCAA study, 30% of student-athletes feel overwhelmed, and nearly 25% feel mentally exhausted. 

Advantages of being a student-athlete

Student-athletes can face different stressors than their non-athlete peers. They also have advantages their peers may not get to enjoy:

  • Built-in support — Student-athletes have the advantage of having a built-in support system and social network with their teammates. They also have coaches and athletic staff to keep an eye on them. 
  • Adaptability — The demands associated with college athletics require student-athletes to be adaptable. Some student-athletes are able to channel their adaptability into effective time management skills as they navigate the challenges of a dynamic schedule. 
  • Mind-body connection — Athletes may understand the importance of mind-body connection better than the average person.
  • Resilience — Sports can help student-athletes build physical and mental resilience. This can help them bounce back from setbacks on and off the field. The physical activity athletes enjoy can also help reduce stress levels due to the release of endorphins. 

Stressors of being a student-athlete

College student-athletes face stressors that are different from the non-athlete students. However, they may be less likely to seek help. According to the NCAA, only 63% of student-athletes would seek help for stress or mental health concerns. Additional stressors student-athletes can face include:

  • Academic balance — While student-athletes have the benefit of highly structured schedules, managing competing academic and athletic priorities can be extremely challenging nonetheless. Division I athletes can spend an average of 34 hours each week training and competing. (This is more than the 15 to 20 hours recommended for full-time students with a part-time job.) For athletic and academic work to be sustainable, student-athletes have the challenging responsibility of making time for physical recovery, relaxation, noncompetitive activities and self-care as well. 
  • Physical injuries — Being a student-athlete can take a physical toll. It can cause stress due to worrying about being injured. If injured, there can also be the pressure of returning too quickly. Trying to push to return quickly can also be stressful.
  • Relationships — Student-athletes have a lot of demands from sports and classes. This can make it hard to make or keep relationships. They can also struggle if there are dynamics issues on the team. 
  • Pressure to represent the school — The public can place intense scrutiny and expectations on student-athletes. College sports are a big business. Teams have huge expectations that they will bring in money for the school. This can be incredibly stressful to push to meet expectations.
  • Performance anxiety — Student-athletes can be under constant stress. They may feel like they always need to succeed in class and sports. This stress can cause performance anxiety.

Barriers to seek help that student-athletes can face

Mental health and stress management are important. Student-athletes may still face barriers to getting help:

  • Stigma — Athletes, known for their physical prowess and mental toughness, have sometimes faced expectations to demonstrate resilience and strength while downplaying or concealing mental health concerns. This could be attributed to the cultural emphasis on physical toughness, the perceived invincibility of athletes and the fear of appearing “weak” in a competitive environment. Over time, however, there has been a notable shift in attitudes toward mental health in the sports world. 
  • Time constraints — It can be a challenge to get help because of busy schedules. 
  • Awareness — Student-athletes may not know about support and resources available to them. Team-provided counseling may focus on their performance, not helping the problem behind it.
  • Scholarships — A student-athlete may worry that seeking help may cause them to put scholarships or their place on the team at risk. This can increase stress about losing a piece of their identity if they are no longer a student-athlete. 

How to help improve stress levels and mental health of student-athletes

Steps should be taken to help, including:

  • Normalizing mental health conversations
  • Improving access to counseling services and support groups
  • Increasing awareness about available resources and supports
  • Educating coaches and staff on recognizing the signs and how to be supportive
  • Creating flexible schedules to help balance academics and sports
  • Encouraging student-athletes in their growth and personal development
  • Creating peer support programs for experienced student-athletes to mentor newcomers 

Mental health services for collegiate student-athletes in California

At Lightfully U, we understand being a college student-athlete can be a challenging yet rewarding journey. The pressures student-athletes face go beyond the classroom and field. We offer a flexible and accessible way to help you address these stressors and work to equip you with the tools you need to overcome them. We can help you take the first steps toward a balanced and fulfilling academic and athletic experience with a strong body and mind. Together, we can work to achieve a brighter, healthier and more successful future. 

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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