Office of the President

Getting mentally prepared

As often as I can, I travel to our member campuses and interact with students and athletics administrators so I can hear directly about what’s on their minds. Whether the campus is large or small, a common theme often emerges around the most pressing issue facing college athletes: mental health and wellness.

As an Association, we have made great strides in recent years to provide more student assistance funding, lift restrictions on food provisions and help prevent sexual violence on campus by partnering with the It’s On Us campaign. We have taken these steps because they improve the experience of college athletes and enhance students’ overall health and well-being, of which mental health is a critical part.

As we look at further solutions, we must remember that student-athletes are college students first and face all the challenges that accompany that stage in life. This dynamic is compounded by the time commitments, increased attention and competitive nature of athletics.

College athletes are, by and large, a very healthy population – their discipline and dedication to fitness and nutrition put them ahead of their peers.

But for many, the transition from small-stage success at the high school level to the higher stakes of college may produce new feelings of anxiety or depression. For others, frustration with physical injuries can take a mental toll. The drive to win that makes athletes uniquely successful can also be their biggest downfall.

In October, Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, and his team in the Sport Science Institute compiled a handbook to help administrators better understand and help athletes. Mind, Body and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness includes accounts from current and former student-athletes, coaches, administrators and industry experts to shed light on this difficult problem.

In the handbook, Aaron Taylor chronicles his struggles as a standout football player at the University of Notre Dame and in the NFL. Former Purdue University swimming and diving coach Cathy Wright-Eger writes about drowning in the pressure to be both coach and counselor to her teams. Stories like those promote awareness and treatment, help to remove the stigma of mental illness and encourage athletes to discuss their struggles. Training coaches and athletics staff to recognize the warning signs of mental illness will make a difference.

We need to understand even more about how the well-being of an athlete is challenged by the unique nature of playing a given sport. To that end, we have initiated a series of sport-specific summits that engage coaches, administrators, sports scientists and athletes. They will work to identify opportunities within the sport to improve health ranging from injury prevention to season length to rest and recovery.

Through the good work of Hainline, the Sport Science Institute and the coaches, administrators and athletic trainers on campus, students are getting better care than ever before. I encourage each athletics department to engage in meaningful conversation about mental health. Here at the national office, my staff is working on best practices for athletics departments to ensure needed resources and protocols are in place to support those conversations.

The NCAA strives to support young people as students, athletes and people. I look forward to seeing continued good work on mental and physical health throughout the Association. 

Mark Emmert
NCAA President