More than just athletes: Mental health importance grows in college sports

By Marquis Cooley | Reporter

College sports are more popular right now than they’ve ever been before. Saturdays in the fall are dedicated to college football across all sports networks, while the month of March is dedicated to college hoops with March Madness.

With all the coverage and media attention given to these athletes, people seem to forget that while they may be amazing at the sport they play, these players are still college students.

One person who has experienced this firsthand is creator of the mental health podcast Shark Theory, Baylor Barbee. Barbee graduated from Baylor University with his masters in 2006 after playing wide receiver for the Baylor football team from 2000 to 2004. Barbee said he always took pride in his work as a student but realized others had their own opinions about him.

“When people see you as an athlete, they automatically just assume that you’re a slacker in the classroom,” Barbee said. “They automatically just assume that you’re not going to carry your weight in a group project and automatically assume that you just get a free ride, and you have it easy because you have access to tutors and resources, not realizing all that you have to do in your day just to get to the student part.”

According to Baylor’s Student-Athlete Mental Health Services, 30% of the 670 student-athletes on campus have experienced overwhelming anxiety, while 25% of student-athletes report being exhausted from the mental demands of their sport. Hannah Ashley, Associate Director of Mental Health Services and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, said it’s because of the unique challenges they face.

“You have all of the demands that every general student has as far as getting assignments and attending classes on time,” Ashley said. “Then when you add the stress of also being an athlete, you’re also balancing practices and team meetings and weight sessions and sometimes meetings with us, meetings with nutrition.”

Barbee said one of the biggest issues is student-athletes trying to live up to the expectations placed upon them as well as those they set for themselves.

“When you’re in it, you’re just trying to play the role and trying to play the image, trying to be the superstar, all the things you think society wants you to be,” Barbee said. “Which from a mental health standpoint, is the absolute worst thing that you can do.

“Society’s telling me I need to be great, and deep down, I’m still like an 18-year-old kid who has no idea what is going on in the world or what I want to be or what I want to do, and I’m struggling, and so that battle, it was a tough battle.”

Because of the emphasis society places on winners and losers, Barbee said student-athletes sometimes subconsciously associate their worth to victory, and he wishes more people would help them realize that being an athlete is something they do, not who they are.

With social media at the tip of everyone’s fingers however, it can often be hard for student-athletes to remember that. Highlights are posted and viewed by millions of people around the world everyday, and one bad performance, or even just one bad play, can cause people around the world who know nothing about the athlete as a person to begin to humiliate them online. Barbee said he commends the student-athletes in this new era, where the biggest critics can be those who just have nothing better to do.

“I look at some of the tweets that some of these athletes are getting now, and I couldn’t handle it,” Barbee said. “It affects you. They tell you all the time, block out the distractions, block out the noise, but the reality is you can’t — it’s impossible.”

While Baylor does offer counseling and workshops for student-athletes to help deal with those problems and overall mental stress, Ashley said limiting time on social media will help.

“You might be someone who people are looking to and wanting to engage with on that platform,” Ashley said. “But if you limit your time and limit what you’re reading, that can kind of eliminate the stress that’s coming from some of those areas, too.”

Ashley also said athletes could use their social media platforms for positive dialogue about mental health.

“Stigma is still the number one reason why student-athletes don’t reach out for help, the stigma of what are people going to say,” Ashley said. “We’ve had several student-athletes who utilize their social media platforms to help us in breaking that stigma, and so it’s an opportunity to change the narrative and change the conversation.”

One of those students is Baylor men’s basketball senior Mark Vital. In an interview with BaylorVision, Vital said the stigma surrounding student-athletes needs to be broken.

“A lot of people think that, since you’re this player and that you are this person on the court or whatever you do at your job, that when you go home or do anything, that you don’t have problems,” Vital said. “A lot of people are dealing with a lot of things. They try to hide it, because they go play a certain sport or they go to work, and there’s something that they love, so they try to put all the pain and everything they have into it. And once they go back home, it’s different.”

Barbee said fans and classmates can help out by being more conscious of how they interact with student-athletes.

“These are human beings with problems, and they’re young kids. They’re not men yet,” Barbee said. “Start looking at it from a humanitarian aspect instead of ‘That’s just an athlete.’ We’re not just athletes.”

Another thing that could help these student-athletes is preparing them for life after college, outside of their sport. According to the NCAA, less than 10% of all collegiate athletes make it professionally with some sports being as low as 2%. For some of these student-athletes, not realizing their dream can be mentally jarring.

“Inevitably with every athlete that plays it at a Division I level … You’re used to this and everything that comes with it, and it’s amazing,” Barbee said. “One day, it all ends, and you kind of ride that high for a little bit, but inevitably at some point, whether you go pro or college ends, you feel, ‘Oh, I’m nobody,’ and you don’t really have people there to pick you up.”

While life may be difficult for student-athletes right now, Barbee had some words of encouragement about their future.

“The pressures and stuff that you’re dealing with right now is kind of like a microwave version of life, meaning it’s gonna get hot really fast,” Barbee said. “If you can withstand the pressures that you have right now and keep your bigger picture in term … you are ahead of 100% of people that you will compete against in jobs and in other things.”