Published on August 25, 2022

Back to School, Back to Sports; Athletes and Mental Health

Female Soccer Team

As we think about going back to school, many also think about getting back into sports. Parents and students of all ages register for soccer, football, hockey, baseball and a myriad of other school, travel or club sports. College athletes are conditioning and thinking about upcoming seasons. It’s a good time to remember that while sports are to be enjoyed and celebrated, there is still an element of stress and pressure that many athletes may experience. It’s important to keep in perspective that though the goal may be to win or become the champion of the moment, sports also exist to teach us valuable life principles and strengthen our minds and bodies.

A recent NCAA study found that mental health issues are a big concern for student athletes. An Association-wide survey of more than 9,800 students reported that while more than half of male and female college athletes know where to go if they have mental health concerns, 20 percent fewer said they would feel comfortable seeking help.

As we think about what we can do to address potential mental health struggles related to sports, consider that the expectations placed on athletes by coaches, parents and the athletes themselves can be high. Also, asking for help can be daunting and resources are not always readily available. Below are several methods that can be used to benefit mental health even if you don’t have a doctor, are not ready to seek help or you simply want to achieve peak performance.

  • Be aware of the signs of stress. Keep an eye out for changes in mood, sleep, appetite or general behavior that is unusual or concerning.
  • Utilize breathing techniques. Deep breathing exercises can reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Build and maintain routines. This allows an individual to feel in control and create consistency.
  • Visualization. Visualization of both success and potential failures helps prepare an athlete for competition.
  • Talk it out. Dialogue with fellow athletes, coaches and parents can and should include both physical and mental status.
  • Ask for help. When coping strategies aren’t helping, seek out a health care professional: primary care provider, therapist or psychiatrist.

A focus on enhancing mental and emotional strengths in addition to physical conditioning is paramount for competitive athletes. Early recognition and communication along with encouragement to reach out for help when things become unmanageable is key. Talking with friends, parents and/or professionals will help provide a strong support system beyond the season they are in.

Thomas Bills, M.D., is a former division I athlete and psychiatrist with a special interest in Sports Psychiatry. Dr. Bills is welcoming athletes to his office at a new location, 3007 N. Saginaw Road, located on the campus of MyMichigan Medical Center Midland. Those who would like to make an appointment may call the office at (989) 839-3385.