Student Athletes & Mental Health

The mind directly impacts the body and performance. Those who pursue optimal mental health will be able to perform better by being able to manage stress and concentrate more on their performance.

The culture of athletics often stresses the importance of resiliency and self-reliance. Student athletes are taught to forge ahead and overcome all challenges. Student athletes learn to conceal their weaknesses from the opponent and this is valuable in competition.

However, the unique expectations of an athlete’s life on top of everyday student responsibilities can create unforeseen difficulties. Researchers have suggested that 10-15% of American college student athletes are dealing with issues significant enough to warrant the need for professional counseling services, but student athletes are hesitant to seek support from a counselor.

The mind directly impacts the body and performance, so athletes’ mental health is equally as important as their physical health. It is important for athletes to know what challenges can be triggered or exacerbated by their involvement in athletics, and to know that Counseling Services is a confidential service they can access on campus for added support.

Barriers to Performance: Identity Changes

Identity Changes

  • The transition from high school to college athletics can create identity questions as students are cut, lose playing time, or encounter a higher quality of talent. A few might experience difficulties related to their exceptional performance and media attention.
  • Overall visibility of an athlete may make you unfairly seen as a representative of your team and all athletes. It can be important to remember that your sport is what you do, not who you are.
  • LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered) athletes may encounter labeling and stereotypes from both their teammates and society at large.

Effects on Performance: Decrease in confidence; overwhelmed and distracted; team chemistry impact.

Barriers to Performance: Anxiety


  • Time crunch of balancing work, practice, competition and classes can make for a chaotic and rigorous schedule.
  • Pressure to perform as the commitment increases: many student athletes admit the pressure to succeed on the collegiate level seriously impacts their focus.
  • Maintaining your scholarship: for some athletes scholarships are the only reason they are able to attend college. Scholarships can be determined by your performance in athletic competition and in the classroom. When competing demands emerge, the anxiety may follow.

Effects on Performance: Concentration/focus diminished; less able to manage natural anxiety in competition; lose energy needed to adequately prepare.

Barriers to Performance: Depression


  • The injured athlete potentially faces many changes: not feeling a part of the team; losing credibility; falling behind teammates in skills and experience; or the prospect that their season or career may be over. These changes may create the challenge of grief that a student athlete is not always prepared to handle.
    • Typically, the student athlete’s reaction is all about recovery from the physical problem, and rarely addresses the common emotional pain and anxiety that accompanies injury. When the emotional and mental toll is ignored, full recovery is impeded.
  • Ending the season or career can have an emotional impact. When less than 1% of college athletes become professionals in their sport, the adjustment to ending something that you’ve invested so much time and energy into can come as a shock. What’s next? Who am I now? For most, their role may simply change and the sport they love can still have a significant place in their life.

Effects on Performance: Decrease in motivation, concentration, and/or energy; loss of interest in competition and/or teammates; burn out, dissatisfaction and/or irritability or anger; increased risk of injury.

Barriers to Performance: Relationships


  • Conflicts with teammates can create tension on and off the field. The student athlete is surrounded by teammates more days than not through the year. Many athletes live with teammates. For some, this could pose a challenge and conflicts may emerge. When tension rises within the team, take time away and see if you can gain a fresh perspective, talking and spending time with peers who are not on the team is a good first step.
  • Relationships with coaches can also present challenges. Student athletes may have concerns about playing time, the need to adjust to a new style of coaching, or personality conflicts, all of which can significantly impact both the relationship with coaches and the mental health of student athletes.

Effects on Performance: Team chemistry impacted; lack of focus in preparation and competition; decreased motivation.

Barriers to Performance: Body Image/Disordered Eating

Body Image/Disordered Eating

  • Student athletes are often exposed to double pressures that affect healthy eating and body image. Many are subjected to both internal and external appearance demands and a performance drive for thinness, leanness, and gender norms.
  • Discipline and dedication are important and useful in most aspects of student athlete’s life, but rigid discipline in terms of food and exercise can lead athletes to the edge of an unhealthy life style. Most eating disorders start simply with a restricting diet.

Physical Health Consequences: sleep disturbance; difficulties regulating body temperature; cardiac complications; loss of bone density; damage to various organs and body parts