A new NCAA study, based on responses from over 20,000 current student athletes, has helped to identify important trends from the 2022-2023 academic year regarding student-athlete mental health concerns as well as wellness support from coaches and their institutions.
The trends indicate that there is a general improvement in mental health since 2020, which is likely related to the timing of COVID and how it impacted the student-athlete experience. However, what is concerning from the data is that there has not been a significant change, in a positive direction, in student-athletes' mental health concerns. One example that demonstrates a slow shift is the change from 2020 data to the 2022-2023 study in female athletes' perspective on constantly "feeling overwhelmed by all you have to do” and “feeling mentally exhausted”. While the Spring 2020 numbers were 50% and 39%, respectively, the 2022 numbers were 44% and 35%, only a 6% and 4% drop. This indicates that nearly half and a third of female athletes still express that these are challenges that they are dealing with almost every day.
Photo Credit - NCAA Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Study
In the last few years there has been increased conversation around how we can improve mental health support for our student-athletes and place a greater emphasis on overall well-being, but oftentimes momentum is lost when it comes to designing these preventative initiatives, deciding to invest more resources and personnel to this work and taking action. The perspective on athlete mental health and well-being seems to teeter between "this needs to be a priority" and "is it really necessary to put more money into this space?" However, when we start to teeter we need to ask ourselves...How do we expect our athletes to be able to show up at practice and perform, to be able to be focused, eager, committed and engaged when this one stat shows that a third to a half of female athletes are overwhelmed and mentally drained every day. If you had half your team expressing these struggles with you..what would you do?
Another surprising finding that shows up in the wellness support section is that “Student-athletes reported feeling less comfortable talking to their coaches about mental health issues as compared to speaking about physical health issues. The percentage of student-athletes who felt their coaches cared about well-being issues generally has declined since pre-pandemic studies.” Only 40% of women said they would feel comfortable talking with coaches about mental health issues and just over half of the men surveyed. If these student-athletes don’t feel like they can turn to the one individual that is most impactful in their sport and life trajectory, how can we expect them to have a healthy and positive experience, and not feel alone in the process? At the same time, blame cannot be placed on coaches if they themselves are not aware of ways that they can build trust, connection and a more positive coach-athlete relationship to improve openness and sharing.
Erin Haugen, Clinical & Sport Psychologist | Founder & CEO, Haugen Performance Consulting, writes in a recent Linkedin post in reference to this study "[coaches] may care and not express it in a way student-athletes feel supported” and that “there's space for programming around helping coaches express their support in effective ways”. This finding demonstrates that there is a disconnect between student-athletes and coaches. It also shows that there is an opportunity for coaches to become better equipped with new strategies and tools to demonstrate their support for their athletes and learn how to effectively seek out feedback to begin to develop a more collaborative space. More importantly, in order to help their student-athletes feel more comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their concerns, coaches could benefit from development opportunities providing new knowledge on how to create a more safe and confirming space.
How well do you feel your conferences and institutions are preparing you to deal with these concerns and better equip you to demonstrate care for your athletes? Comment your thoughts or reach out to continue the conversation!