Reilly Paterson

University of Evansville Athletes balancing mental health and athletics

“Every time a new opportunity arises my first thought is, ‘wow, why me?’” said by No.1 ranked tennis player, Naomi Osaka. Osaka decided to take a break from tennis and focus on her mental health. In doing so, she was one of the first professional athletes to put herself first. She has begun a trend of other professional athletes and college athletes having the courage to do the same.
With the fall season up and running again at the University of Evansville,
UE athletes continuously face the struggles of balancing their mental health and athletics. Captain of the Men’s Soccer team, Evan Dekker shares: “I find balancing athletics, academics and sleep can be a struggle.”  Across the country, there are many athletes who can sympathize with Dekker. Being an athlete brings many long days of training which can be physically and mentally draining. Especially for collegiate athletes who not only have to endure hours of training and games, but must also balance a full class schedule. With the pause Covid-19 put onto the world, many athletes got time to self-evaluate and process their feelings. Many realized they do need a break from pushing themselves so hard in the past.
            Fall athletes transitioning into their traditional fall season following an abbreviated spring season. These fall athletes have never experienced playing a spring season until the circumstances last year. The continuing of the fall season right after the summer break may have come as a shock for most of them. Dekker shared, “it was difficult having not played so much in a calendar year before. I have definitely experienced mental and physical exhaustion. And I had to focus more on my physical recovery which has influenced my daily routine.” These athletes struggled with so many games in a short amount of time.
Senior women’s soccer player Emily Ormson describes her day as “very long and taxing.” She went into detail about her typical day as a student athlete. Ormson describes, “I wake up and most of the time I don’t have time to eat a good breakfast before my classes. Some days I go straight from class to lift to class again. Just to have an hour break before training. Although this lifestyle is worth it and enjoyable. It can be straining on mental health.” Other UE athletes can relate to Ormon’s busy schedule.
Athletes are creatures of habit. They thrive in environments with a routine. When that is disrupted it can throw them off. LMFT specialist Karen Black from Coffee House Counseling in Southern California expressed some strategies athletes can take in order to get themselves back on track. “Some of the easiest strategies athletes can do to block out negativity are engaging in relaxation techniques or even just engaging in things you like to do.” Many college athletes forget that sometimes they’re in college to make new experiences and enjoy themselves and not just be an athlete or a student.
Athletes thrive under high pressure and believe that pressure is a privilege. While others succumb to the pressure. UE student-athletes can be constantly overwhelmed with the pressures of wanting to be their best. Dekker shares his approach in getting through those hard times, stating “There’s no pressure. Just enjoy it, sometimes I get too emotional or upset or want to feel everything 100 percent, but I forget that I have to enjoy what I do. And most of the time when you enjoy things you end up being more successful.” Dekkers point of view on how to handle the pressures of being a student-athlete could be beneficial for a lot of people. Athletes can let the pressure get to them, but pressure is always going to be around in sports. Learning how to deal with it and “just enjoy it” like Dekker said is the most important strategy.
Fortunately, the University of Evansville has many resources for their athletes and student-body if feeling overwhelmed. The University of Evansville counseling center is free for all students to receive any personal or individual counseling they need. Karen Black shared that “most universities have counseling centers and they’re good support outlets athletes can use.” The UE counseling services can help with a broad range of problems or issues. Even if they’re minor or small.
Student-athletes’ mental health has been ignored for quite some time. For the most part it’s due to lack of conversation. Student-athletes have the support of their coaches, teammates, and peers. Dekker feels the most confident in his sport when having “a good relationship with my coach.” A good role model is important for these young athletes. It is important that UE athletes feel comfortable enough to go to their coaching staff or teammates for advice. Ormson shared that the Women’s soccer team has “weekly check-ins with small groups in order to make sure everyone can share anything they’re stressed or worried about and receive some advice from a teammate.”
This year, UE held a forum called Human2Human. Every UE athlete was required to attend and participate. The goal of Human2Human was for student athletes to branch out and get to know other athletes at the school. This was very beneficial for the athletes because many got to see new faces and learn more about each other. Human2Human shows that UE student athletes have each other to rely on because they all share similar life experiences.
This fall, many UE student-athletes have felt the pressures of performing in the classroom and on the field. However, having the tough conversations about mental health and being able to put yourself first will help these UE athletes grow into well rounded and happy people in the future. Being able to know that it’s okay to take personal days is something that hopefully becomes more accepted within college sports.