During the first two seasons of my junior year at Syracuse (2011-2012), I experienced the biggest slump in my running career to date. In cross country I couldn’t break 25:00 in the 8K, and in indoor I struggled to run in the 8:30s and 14:50s in the 3K and 5K after running 8:17 and 14:22 the previous year. Nothing physically was wrong with me and it took me a long time to admit to myself that I wasn’t mentally approaching the sport from the right perspective. I faced anxiety related issues pertaining to my training and racing, put a lot of pressure on myself to perform, and was no longer enjoying the sport.
I broke down and sought a different kind of therapy—sports psychology. Yes, maybe I had overtrained a bit and was too obsessive with certain aspects of the sport; however, I was mentally drained and frustrated with my mental weakness and inability to push past the pain. For the last few years of my collegiate career, I have been seeing a sports psychologist weekly on balancing life as a student-athlete and approaching my competitions and training the correct way. At first, it was not something I wanted to share with many people because my ego and confidence got in the way. The negative connotation associated with seeing a psychologist made me feel embarrassed.
I want to take this moment to express the importance of seeing a sports psychologist for ALL student-athletes in the NCAA, and not just for those who are struggling or feel depressed. It is okay to see a psychologist when everything is going well. Too many times I have seen athletes and teammates in my sport suffer set backs related to mental struggles, and in most of those cases the athletes were apprehensive to seek help or want an outlet to express their frustrations…not that they could get any help anyway due to a lack of resources provided on this issue in the NCAA.
As a disclosure, I am not familiar with other NCAA institutions and their backgrounds in staffing sports psychologists, but I can speak for the lack of staff at the Syracuse University Athletic Training Department dedicated to sports psychology and nutrition. Currently, there are no members of the Syracuse Athletic Department who play a role in the mental health and well-being of the Syracuse student-athletes, and its a shame and an embarrassment that they are unwilling to staff such help. I firmly believe that full-time staffed psychologists and nutritionists in the athletic training department would be exponentially successful towards long term success for all programs in the athletic department. Student-athletes need an outlet to express their frustrations and concerns, including performance in competition, the stress of balancing academics and athletics, eating disorders, depression, and other mental health aspects. The athletic training facilities at Syracuse, a member of one of the big 5 conferences in the NCAA, does only so much to support athletes physically, but NOT mentally.
I like to think that my sport is more mental than physical. The training requires all the physical strength put forth by an athlete, but when the time comes to step on the line and produce results, the mental side of the sport kicks in and reveals the true will of an athlete to perform to the best of their ability. It is easier to think of sports psychology as training, but for for the mind. When your sport requires a substantial amount of mental focus and energy, wouldn’t you agree that you need to train that portion of your talent as well? No one sees the hard physical labor that gets an athlete to the physical fitness they are in. They are only able to see the results produced on the day of competition when your mind is in control of how you perform. Unfortunately, many athletes are evaluated solely by results on the day of competition, unaware of the physical labor put forth by the athletes in periods of hard practice and training—which is why it is extremely important for all student-athletes at NCAA institutions to have required access to sports psychologists to train their minds and mental capabilities.
It’s time to make sports psychology and seeing a psychologist a norm at NCAA training facilities and take away the negative stigma associated with it. Many are too quick to stereotype psychiatrists as an outlet for those with ‘mental problems’ rather than a positive outlet to build upon the strength of the mind. Because of this, student-athletes suffer and are not willing to seek mental help; however, this is also a result of the lack of resources provided to student-athletes for mental health.
To those reading who can help to do something about this dilemma, you have the full attention of a student-athlete graduating in one month who wants to see something change in relation to sports psychology as a part of NCAA institutions. I am proud to say that I could not have accomplished what I have done in part to the sports psychologist I have been seeing over the last few years, Dr. Jeff Pauline, a member of the Syracuse University Sports Management Department, unaffiliated with the athletics department.
Syracuse University members who are reading this, its time to speak up and get someone on staff to service the mental needs of student-athletes on campus. Up to this point, I am sorry to say that the training facilities at Syracuse have been subpar during my experience at the university. It’s time to put the student-athletes first on this issue.
And to those reading who are apprehensive about sports psychology, seeking mental help, or just having an anonymous outlet to talk to—don’t be turned off by ‘going to therapy.’ Train your mind the same way you train your body, speak up, and don’t let your pride get in the way of something beneficial. Confidence is a double-edged sword. Be careful and wary about the stubborn and egotistical side of it.