An athlete’s mental health is just as important as physical health. After years of athletes being viewed as commodities rather than people, there has been a rapid shift toward acknowledging that athletes struggle with day-to-day challenges in mental wellness and health.
After professional athletes spoke out about their own mental health challenges, such as NBA players Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, curiosity may have arisen for how colleges and universities are working to promote mental wellbeing and combat mental illness with their student athletes.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln sports psychology team aims to fill some of those needs. Two of the team members, Mariah Bullock and Nedu Izeugbunam, said there is an uptick in awareness surrounding athletes’ mental health not only nationally, but have also had more UNL student-athletes coming to them for use of the services they provide.
Bullock said she didn’t have sports specific clinicians at her university or when she played in the Women’s Professional Soccer League.
“What we’re seeing even since I started my grad program is that the jobs within college and professional athletics as a mental performance coach, as a psychologist and a sports psychologist, have just blown up,” Bullock said. “And that shows the interest and the investment both in the US and in the athletes to make sure that by treating someone’s psychological health, it was also treating their physical health and treating their performance.”
However, she said that the increased need for sports psychologists, as athletes seek help, could be from a different reason.
“Within our department, the numbers have continually increased, which could be a manifestation of more mental health issues increasing, or it could just be that people who weren’t coming in before are now feeling comfortable to come in,” Bullock said.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented numerous mental health challenges and gave people more time to self-reflect as they isolated in quarantine. The UNL sports psychology team has worked with more student-athletes reaching out to seek help. Izuegbunam said that statistics showed that a much higher number of student-athletes sought counseling after the brunt of the pandemic.
“This has been a huge positive because now these student-athletes are learning, okay, I can use these resources that I have for free here as a student,” Izuegbunam said. “They’re able to seek help from us, from the athletic medicine team and even massage therapists and nutritionists. We are much busier, but that’s absolutely okay as long as we’re helping the athletes.”
Having traditional one-on-one mental health treatment is not the only service provided by the team. The sports psychologists provide Husker athletic teams and student-athletes with wide-ranging services to cover a great number of needs.
Currently the department has five mental health professionals.They offer individual services for mental health treating mental illness. They look at mental health as if it is a spectrum. On one end, there is mental illness, helping with clinical disorders like depression and anxiety. The middle of the spectrum is helping people adjust, whether that’s to college, a new state, a new role within their team, and can also be regarding sleep or relationship consultations. On the other end of the spectrum is the sport performance side. This can contain motivation, goal setting, bouncing back from mistakes, confidence or maybe high pressure moments athletes might face in a game or match.
The psychology team works at an individual level with the student-athletes and then on a team level. Nebraska’s teams are split between the psychologists and, depending on who the liaison is, will provide a performance workshop for a team or for student athletes as a whole. Consultations are also offered to coaches and staff.
One of the teams that utilizes the department’s resources often and views it as an essential part to general wellness and success is the Huskers’ softball team.
Rhonda Revelle, the head coach of the softball team, is no stranger to the challenges surrounding mental health and wellness of student-athletes. She has been the Nebraska softball head coach since 1993 and was a student-athlete herself from 1981-1983.
After allegations of a toxic environment were made by players on the softball team, Revelle was suspended from May of 2019 to August of 2019. But with the help of the sports psychology team and others, Revelle said she believes she has grown and made strides to work on her own mental health to be a better coach and leader.
“I can only speak from my own personal experience,” Revelle said. “I feel very responsible to be in a good place mentally because if I’m going to lead people, I need to do my part. Student athletes work hard dealing with their own mental health, and I’ve worked very hard at mine as well. There are times in life that are very challenging, and I was presented with challenging circumstances. When life throws you challenges, you have choices. My choice was what I was going to do to maintain my own mental health during that time. And so I had and still have a very detailed protocol that I go through.”
She said she believes mental wellness is important when it comes to the success of student-athletes.
“In order to stay mentally well, you have to make mental health a priority,” Revelle said. “When you’re trying to combine being an athlete with finals, midterms and papers due and then also competing in a really important Big 10 games, one week can feel very heightened as far as the stress and the pressure that student-athletes have.”
Revelle said she has seen many changes in the environment around athletics in her time as a player and coach. She said social media has played a big part both positively and negatively on the mental health of student-athletes and athletes in general.
“One of the things that isn’t trending in a great direction is how social media has influenced the mental health of student-athletes and mental health of athletes in general,” Revelle said. “It’s very easy for people to put something out there in the world, when they’re in an emotional state. So a fan may be invested in the outcome of a game and it doesn’t go their way, and now they’re tweeting negative things at a player or coach. Words matter and words hurt.”
Social media can have positive effects too, though, Revelle said.
“With social media, people are just talking about it more,” she said. “People don’t have to feel like they’re in hiding or that they’re alone. Just like if somebody has a knee injury, with mental health, they don’t feel like they’re hiding and alone.”
The athletes’ feeling as though they need to hide or that they are alone are part of one of the bigger barriers that the sports psychologists are trying to break through, stigma.
According to Izuegbunam and Bullock, two of the biggest obstacles in the way of athletes seeking out the psychology team’s services are stigma and time.
“Student-athletes’ time is so precious,” Bullock said. “They might want to rest or do homework with that extra 30 minutes to an hour in a day rather than make a trip back out to the stadium and start something that can be pretty nerve-wracking to start out. So coming back to the stadium, or investing in something that feels less important, is difficult.
Stigma is one of the biggest obstacles to getting mental health help in general, let alone for student-athletes.
“With professional athletes speaking up, we made a lot of progress,” Izuegbunam said. “But there is still a stigma. The hard part is there might be some groups who in their culture, or their race, this is something viewed as a weakness. And because of that, especially with male teams, there’s this expectation that you have to be hyper-masculine and if you don’t meet that, then you’re viewed as weak. In reality, if you’re coming to talk to somebody because you’re wanting to get better, I’d say that shows strength.”
Looking to the future in the field of sports psychology and at UNL, Bullock and Izuegbunam said they would like to see a lot of changes
“Moving forward, we’d like to create more group therapy options because it can be so effective,” Bullock said. “We are short on space, and that’s something that we haven’t done as much, but we’d like to grow into it.”
They said they would also like to see the creation of a training program, either collaborating with some of the other departments on campus, or bringing in their own training to help develop the next generation of sports psychologists.
At the end of the day though, the most important thing Izuegbunam, Bullock, and Revelle want to see is people talking.
“We see a lot more people talking about it and love seeing that,” Bullock said. “A lot more influential athletes with a bigger platform have shared their own struggles, which normalizes going to see a psychologist or mental performance coach and can also decrease stigma at UNL.”
They said the biggest changes will come and do come from lowering the stigma surrounding mental health. Simply talking about it or even writing a story about it is helping to do some good.