Student-Athletes Find Ways to Cope, Manage Mental Health
By TGE Staff
Things To Remember . . .
- You don’t have to be perfect.
- Having a bad day is ok.
- Small steps are also progress.
- Asking for help is strength.
- People love and appreciate you.
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In what has recently been referred to as the “quiet crisis” in college sports, student-athletes are finding different ways to manage exhaustion, anxiety, depression and other conditions leading to their overall mental health.
Being a college student-athlete is the pinnacle of most players’ careers, but the journey to reach that goal can certainly take its toll, not just physically, but mentally as well.
Along the trek to make it to the highest level, student-athletes face pressures and challenges that come with extra training, preparation and competition, and learning to deal with those has become imperative.
Athletes, and especially amateurs still in the college ranks, don’t want to appear weak or like they can’t handle the pressures. But mental health is a condition that has demanded a call to action, just like that of a physical injury, and more and more athletes are speaking out about the pressures they face and skills that they use to find a medium among the madness.
I met Molly Heidrick in 2019. At the time, she was a 15 year old pitcher and she and my daughter were on the verge of becoming teammates with a new team for both of them. Molly and her father and my daughter and I made plans to meet for lunch so that the girls could meet. On the outside, Molly was just like any other 15 year old girl; giggy, bubbly and fun. But what I didn’t know then and I learned over the years of eventually becoming one of her coaches is that, on the inside, Molly dealt with performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety is real and it is said to be caused by negative thinking, fear of failing, inability to deal with adversity or uncertainty, problems with focusing and feeling the need to be overwhelmingly perfect. It is a manageable condition, and now a sophomore pitcher at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MIssouri, Molly has found her own ways.
-Telling someone about it
“When I got to school here at Lindenwood, I actively sought out my coaches and teammates and spoke to them about my anxiety. I told them about what could lessen or worsen my symptoms and how they can help me if I were to be feeling very anxious one day. I am also very upfront about it when it is happening. Some days I just show up to weights or practice experiencing a lot of anxiety, so I simply tell my coaches and teammates that I’m feeling very anxious that day so that they can offer me some extra support if I need it, which they are wonderful about!”
“If you are someone who has seen me play or be in a game environment, I like to keep the energy very high. I am always singing, dancing or celebrating every small thing while I am on the mound. I’ve found that if I throw myself into whatever is happening at that moment, my anxiety will fade into the background. Obviously, there will always be moments where anxiety will be harder to look away from, but putting my entire focus onto something else has always helped me.”
-Being “in the arena”
“Our mantra here at Lindenwood softball is being “in the arena”, which basically means going all out every single play, even though you know that you could fail. A lot of my personal performance anxiety comes from fear of failure and judgement. But adopting this mantra and knowing that my teammates have done the same really calms me down on the mound. Judgement is something that has been harder for me to overcome, but over my first year of college, I found out that the people who would judge me based on my performance on the field and not by who I am and how hard I work are not people that I would want in my circle. At the end of my day, I know who my supporters are, and those are the people that matter, not the critics.”
-Acknowledging my anxiousness
“It took me a long time to realize that there is a difference between performance anxiety and being nervous. But it also took me a long time to realize that it is ok to be either. The best athletes in the world get nervous. There are Olympic gold medalists who struggle with performance anxiety, and that’s ok! But what sets them apart is that they recognize how they are feeling and harness it towards their goals.”
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More specifically, Molly was open to the recognition of the anxiety and nerves that came with her recruiting process just a short time ago. It was a choice that would ultimately change the trajectory of her life. Like others, she received mail and she got phone calls and emails. She was receptive to advice that she got from peers and coaches. But while everyone’s journey is their own and it doesn’t come with instructions, Molly handled the process and the anxiety that came with it the best she could.
First, she made a list of things that she wanted and didn’t care to have in a school.
Next, she asked herself, “Would I attend this school even if I didn’t play softball here?” and “Is this somewhere I would be happy if softball were taken away from me?”
Her next step was talking through the process with her family and coaches while also coming to realize that the decision she would make would be hers. Molly admits that input from others was considered and respected, but when it all culminated, it would be her who was moving and beginning a new life in a new town.
And lastly, Molly trusted her gut.
She said, “Anxiety is the body’s natural process to signal to you that something is not quite right. When you’re on a visit, you should feel comfortable at the school or with the coaches and players. If they are just increasing your anxiety, listen to it and take that into account. But remember, there is a difference between being nervous and being anxious.”
“Softball is something that has never come to me naturally,” Molly added. “I have always seemed to struggle with it more than the girls I played with. I only started being successful in softball once I stopped fighting my anxiety and started working with it. Part of why I am so animated on the field is because I allow myself to fully feel my emotions; the excitement, the disappointment, the joy. The more you fight negative emotions, the more they will fight back. Once I started to let myself feel and accept my anxiety, the quicker it faded. But for better or worse, it is a large part of who I am.”
They are sons. They are daughters. They are students. And they are athletes. But it is important to treat athletes as more than just their sport. It can be easy to forget that they have a whole life outside of the sport they play.
They have a whole life; just like you and me.
PICTURE CUTLINE: PERFORMANCE ANXIETY has always been a condition that Molly Heidrick, 19, has managed. Molly never let it deter her from her goals, however, and she is now a sophomore pitcher in the Ohio Valley Conference for Lindenwood University.