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Make the experience positive

Lincoln Memorial student-athlete Bradley Maldonado offers a student-athlete perspective on managing mental health.

By Bradley Maldonado

NOTE: This story is excerpted from the Sports Science Institute’s soon-to-be released book, “Mind Body and Sport – Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness,” a comprehensive look at the student-athlete experience from a mental health perspective – from their relationships with faculty, peers, administrators, coaches and fans. The book will be released on and in late September.

Bradley Maldonado

The transition from high school to college is a fragile period. The moment after a student-athlete waves goodbye to loved ones on that first day, he or she will face pressure to acclimate athletically, academically and socially.

Athletically, most student-athletes go from being one of the best players on their high school teams to sitting on the bench that first year in college. At the same time, the commitment that being a collegiate athlete requires is twice as much as in high school. That’s a daunting task and in many cases requires “the rookie” to adjust to a whole new way of life.

Academically, college coursework is much more rigorous than high school. Students in their first year of study will notice the difference right away. You now have less time in the classroom, but more work to complete. As such, you’ve got to manage your time effectively. That additional stress compounded by the new athletics-related responsibilities can affect your mental health.

Socially, it’s the first time many student-athletes have been away from home – and home could be 10 minutes away or 10 hours away. And for many, the college population is twice as large as their high school class, which means they’ll expand their contacts and meet people from all different kinds of backgrounds. While that’s an exciting proposition, these contrasting cultures can cause student-athletes to question aspects of their own lives.

With all of that on their shoulders, it shouldn’t be a surprise that mental health issues could arise.

To cope, student-athletes rely heavily on their “support staff” to navigate the new landscape. Primary among that group is the coach. For many student-athletes, the coach is the main reason they chose to attend that school, so it’s natural that in times of need – whether it’s athletics, academic or social – they’ll seek out the coach first.

Your coach molds you. Your coach teaches you how to confront challenges and reach your potential. Your coach becomes almost like a second parent. There must be trust and understanding between the coach and the student- athlete for the relationship to flourish. If neither is present, then problems may arise.

A disagreement about coaching philosophy can cause issues when it comes to playing time. Some student-athletes may disagree with the way the coach runs practice or training. That means good communication is vital. If the two can’t be on the same page, it places additional stress on both parties in an athletics setting.

While the coach is the student-athlete’s primary point of contact, the team is the cocoon. Whether you participate in an individual sport like tennis or a team sport like soccer, you’ll always be part of the greater whole known as the team.

And team dynamics play a huge role in the student-athlete experience. At its best, the team can empower you, but at its worst, the team can put you down. It all depends on the dynamic and chemistry among team members. That’s a stress factor unique to athletics.

Most of the time the team offers you protection, but in cases when you’re already showing signs of mental health issues, the team isn’t always equipped to buffer them for you. Sometimes, in fact, the team adds to the mental health stress by encouraging or even pressuring new student-athletes to engage in behaviors that aren’t in their best interests, such as alcohol and drug use. To be sure, your relationship with your teammates can influence your mental health.

Other members of a student-athlete’s “support group” are the professors. Most understand the commitment that participating in athletics requires and will work with you to accommodate your practice schedule. But not all instructors are alike in this regard. That’s another path student-athletes must manage, and it can cause stress if it isn’t handled properly.

Your success in this regard can vary depending on your preparedness and devotion to academics. Standards that professors set can be taxing for student-athletes who have been conditioned to ask “how high?” when told to “jump.” Our competitive nature doesn’t stop when we step off the field.

In the first part of this chapter, Aaron Taylor talked about the devastating effects of injury on a student-athlete’s mental health. He is absolutely right. More than likely, athletes have participated in their sport all their lives, and being sidelined by an injury throws off the “norm” to which they have been accustomed.

And lengthy rehabs complicate the student-athlete’s already packed schedule. We’re also aware of our teammates’ perception of whether we’re “fighting through it” enough. That can make you feel excluded from the team.

The injury has already kept you from participating in something you’ve done most of your life. You don’t need the added pressure of feeling isolated.

Most of the time, the student-athlete experience is a positive one, and the “support group” works to keep it that way. In addition to coaches and teachers, athletic trainers, athletics directors and academic affairs folks are there for you as well.

But there are things you can do on your own to cope with the challenges of athletics participation and keep the mental health stressors at bay. Here’s what I do:

Exercise daily. It’s a great way to relieve pressure. Sure, you “exercise” every day in practice, but if you can develop your own routine, it gives you some time by yourself to think and stay active.

Set goals. As competitive people, student-athletes are most likely goal-oriented to begin with. Setting them in all aspects of your experience – whether it’s making good grades or being a starter on the team – can help you shake off the stress that comes with balancing your athletics and academic commitments.

Find a routine. Routine can be another safeguard for your mental health. The consistency of daily practice and class schedule often provides a support system in and of itself. Having the day planned keeps you focused and prevents the anxiety of uncertainty from creeping into your life.

Be a team player. We talked about the importance of the team dynamic, so make sure you contribute to it. After all, your team is who you’ll eat, sleep, suffer and succeed with, and they’re part of your support system. Make sure they’re on your side – and that you’re there for them as well.

There’s more than athletics. College campuses have a bevy of people who can help you in just about any situation. Seek out academic and student affairs groups, take advantage of career counselors and mentors, find other groups that share your interests. And don’t forget your family – they can be your lifeline.

And as for my advice for the “support group” that includes coaches, athletic trainers, athletics directors and others, the most effective method to understanding what it is to be a student-athlete is to talk to the person who wears the colors of your institution. Get to know the individual and what drives them to do what they do, and your relationship will flourish. Knowing the student-athletes will not only enrich your life but also theirs, and that connection will make a lasting impact for years to follow.


Bradley Maldonado just graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in May after spending four years there as a cross country student-athlete. He also chaired the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee in 2013-14, which is the primary student-led governance group in Division II. Maldonado garnered all-Southeast Region honors following a 22nd-place finish in the 2012 NCAA Division II Southeast Regional. He was also a first-team all-South Atlantic Conference honoree after a sixth-place finish in the 2012 SAC championship.