Athletes balance competition, mental health

Grueling hours at practice. Long, exhausting weight room sessions. Meticulously counting of grams of protein in meals. All of the listed activities are some of the measures certain athletes implement in order to keep in peak physical health. In the pursuit of maximum performance, they often make many sacrifices, both intentionally and unintentionally — and mental health is often among those given up. For those whose only interaction with student athletes is cheering them on from the bleachers, such a claim might be surprising to hear. What could be so hard about just playing a game? However, for student athletes, playing a sport is certainly not just a game.

Athletic activities are inherently full of stress. After all, the intent of all the training that athletes undergo is to compete in a high-stakes environment. This stress can easily make its way into the subconscious of athletes and affect their mental states. Cross Country Coach Karen Saxena has seen this happen to a number of athletes. “Sometimes when people start getting too good or they take it too seriously, it becomes [a] thing that they have to do well,” she said. “They’re too worried about being perfect and doing everything right. [Students are] not focusing on just trying to take on challenges and improve themselves into a better runner, a better person and a better teammate.”

However, not all of it is negative. When done properly, athletics can result in improved health, both physically and mentally. Indeed, the majority of athletes do sports with the intention of benefiting from those effects. The athletic experiences of water polo player junior Julian Schultz have been largely positive. “Playing water polo has been a very good use of time,” Schultz said. “I’ve definitely become more fit [and] a lot more healthy because of water polo.” Schultz concedes that there is a very large time commitment that comes with sports. “There’s definitely the balance of it being harder to manage time,” he said. “You just have less of it. I still think [sports is] definitely good for mental health though. I would not be a happy person if I wasn’t active often.”

Saxena believes that sports can even provide relief from stressors outside of sports. “It’s a positive outlet, and it gives them a chance to really work through things,” she said. “That’s always been the case for me.” Physical Education (P.E.) Instructional Lead Matthew McGinn had a similar experience with playing sports. “For me, athletics has always been a positive thing and I always enjoyed what I was doing,” he said. “In high school I competed in three different sports over the four years. I did football, wrestling and track, and I enjoyed them all. So I think that helped me to have that balance, not only athletically but socially.”

Having diversified his own athletic experiences, McGinn encourages student-athletes to do the same. “What I see a lot of, unfortunately, is when a kid focuses on one specific sport, [they get] burned out on it,” he said. “Not to mention overworking muscles and getting overuse injuries.” Although it may seem counter-intuitive, McGinn believes that diversification is key to not only high performance but better mental states as well. “If someone is serious about moving on to the next level, whether it’s college or beyond, oftentimes what you’ll see is that they were able to diversify their athletic experience [by] experienc[ing] different things and different people,” McGinn said.

Saxena gave her own advice regarding having a healthy mindset towards athletics. “I’m a very competitive person, but I think when being competitive you also have to make sure you’re having fun,” she said. “If you’re just going through the motions of the fun part and not really enjoying it, then it just becomes another thing you have to get through, like school and classes.”

Losses and missed goals can be hard on athletes, especially when the stakes become much higher than they were prior to high school. However, Schultz believes that if one thinks about athletics the right way and understands that sports is only an aspect of their lives and not the entirety of it, failure can begin to seem less monstrous. “It can definitely be frustrating when you don’t perform to your expectations, or to your goals, but I separate my performance as an athlete with my performance as a human being,” Schultz said.

Similarly, Saxena advises approaching sports with a particular mindset to deal with letdowns “It’s all about setting goals and trying your best to achieve them, and if you don’t achieve them that’s ok, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you focus too hard on that, it feels like you’re grading yourself. You have to think of it as something special for yourself, not for anyone else to judge or tell you that you’re not good enough.”