Hair spills out of every messy bun and ponytail, but no hair is left to cover the neck. Lacrosse practice has not started, yet sweat still drips down to leave lasting marks. Fifteen girls brave the 91-degree temperature at the start of practice, which is 16 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service, in the last week of September.
With relief in sight as the sun sets below the Lincoln skyline, the girls play on.
In these conditions, sports become more of a mental game: the willingness to push through the hot weather, to show up despite pressing deadlines, to be a part of a team with no current fundraising partners. And with no official psychological counseling for sport club-athletes, the UNL women’s club lacrosse team has found other ways to cope.
“It’s stressful, but I think it’s teaching me how to set my own boundaries and how to really regulate what I need and prioritize,” senior defenseman, Mia Dawson, said.
Dawson, originally from Los Angeles, came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for its early education program.
And she has her sister to thank for introducing her to lacrosse.
“She transferred from soccer to lacrosse after she tore her ACL, so after that, she’s been playing lacrosse for four-plus years and even in college,” Dawson said. “Since then, I’ve been playing when I switched over to a new high school, about five years now.”
With the drive to be great on and off the field, mental struggles can settle in. Mental health concerns were up to 250% higher in 2020 than those historically reported, according to an NCAA well-being survey of 37,000 college athletes.
“This has impacted students more so in recent years than it has in a very long time,” Dawson said. “I feel like every student has felt the pressure of school, work and extracurricular activities much more in which it has made us more aware of our mental health concerns.”
Simone Biles, a 24-year-old, seven-time Olympic gymnast, dropped out of her individual all-around competition in Tokyo to focus on her mental health in late July. Within lacrosse, three women from Michigan, Maryland and Florida have come out within the past two years to talk about their depression and anxiety.
But some lacrosse players in Nebraska are experiencing something different.
The mental health of UNL women’s club lacrosse players is improving, according to coaches and players. The sports club topped COVID challenges with more funding and friends after a year of lockdowns.
“It’s a break from reality where you can really just focus on getting a good workout in and playing hard and know you’re talking to your teammates,” Coach Brenna Boulanger said.
However, club student-athletes don’t have a dedicated mental health group to support them at UNL like varsity student-athletes do. Each psychological counseling department associated with UNL provides assistance to a specific group of individuals: students or varsity athletes, but nothing in between.
Nedu Izuegbunam, an athletic counselor for Nebraska Athletics, said he exclusively treats varsity athletes.
“Sports have a significant impact on mental health,” Izuegbunam said. “You’re getting to interact with others; you’re making friends who many eventually call family and you’re cultivating transferable skills. At this time, we are working with varsity sports exclusively, and it’s possible that we do create programming for clubs and sports outside of varsity.”
The Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is geared toward students. According to its website, “Our staff support all University of Nebraska-Lincoln students.”
The specific group leaves one group in a gray area. Although technically represented by CAPS, sport club-athletes could require specific mental health counseling related to their activities as athletes, whether traveling, competing or practicing.
Who is helping sport club student-athletes right now?
Coach Boulanger came to Nebraska from Dover, N.H., where she first played lacrosse. She, like Dawson, migrated to Nebraska for school. She enrolled at UNL for a master of arts in international administration and now works for Hudl as its elite customer success manager of ice hockey, pro football and national governing bodies. She said she loves to keep her plate full with coaching ice hockey and other jobs, too.
As UNL’s coach for three years, she learns alongside her 15 players, whose knowledge and familiarity with the sport grow. The team travels to out-of-state tournaments and usually aims to schedule two or more tournaments a season, Dawson said.
“Our first tournament showed me we had a lot to a lot of work to do,” Boulanger said of three years ago. “But I thought our team was in a pretty good spot, and it just made me feel good about what I’ve been doing with the girls.”
Funding makes a difference, too. Without it, the team has no money to buy into tournaments or for the equipment they use twice a week at practice. Without it, the team has no outlet for their stress and mental health.
Brian Stelzer, assistant director for sport programs and summer camps at UNL Campus Recreation, said he knows about the club’s current condition. They now can allocate more money from Campus Recreation than they have in recent years.
“Each year in the spring semester, the sports clubs recognized by Campus Recreation submit budget requests and presentations,” Stelzer said in an email. “Budgets and presentations are given to the Sport Club Council Advisory Board, which provides a recommendation for how to allocate the funds directly to our member clubs.”
Student fees contribute the most to UNL Campus Recreation’s budget, which is over $10 million. Sport clubs are included within the Campus Recreation’s own annual request. For the 2021-2022 academic year, $126,740 of student fees collected was allocated directly to 39 member clubs, according to Campus Recreation.
“Between the allocation and self-generated funds, the sport club program has an overall budget of almost $400,000 annually,” Stelzer said. “As the program and number of clubs grow, that goal gets stretched.”
The UNL women’s sport club lacrosse team is slowly catching up to the men’s allocation annually. In the 2019-20 school year, allocations were $2000. In 2020, it was $4750, and now, it’s $5000, according to Campus Recreation. The men’s sport club lacrosse team receives $8,000, so they can travel to more tournaments and get more fees covered.
The growth from 2019 to the 2020 season is uncommon for most sports clubs at UNL, Stelzer said.
“Most of our clubs have a consistent budget from year to year,” Stelzer said. “It’s rare for any club to have a change in allocation of more than $1,000 in a year.”
The women’s club lacrosse team was inactive on campus from 2011 to 2016, Stelzer said. After a five-year hiatus, the team returned in 2017.
“When clubs return, they typically do not compete at the same levels as an established team,” Stelzer said. “Men’s lacrosse has been consistent in its membership for almost 20 years, so their budget has remained consistent.”
The increase in funds has led to an increase in fond memories, Dawson said.
“Two years ago, we went to Kansas and played in some tournaments,” Dawson said. “Having that experience with this team was really fun because we bonded and got closer over the timespan that we traveled.”
With more money comes more playing time as well. For coaches and players, the club has been a relief of mental pressures.
“Mental health is more prevalent in our society today,” Dawson said. “Lacrosse — same with working out — it’s an outlet for me to kind of just expel anger if I have stress. It’s some form to get that out.”