Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Balancing acts: Student-athletes navigate mental health challenges amid many responsibilities

High expectations, growing commitments can lead to mental health challenges among student-athletes, but solutions available
Sam Klepfer

As the stadium lights cast a hypnotic glow across the soccer field, Aidan McConnell played amidst the flurry of activity, her mind grappling with the weight of expectations. Among the clamor of the crowd and intensity of the game, McConnell couldn’t shake the thought of injury — something which threatened to eclipse her season with one wrong move.

Tragedy struck when McConnell tore her meniscus and ACL at the start of the 2023 season. This stark reminder, built upon the relentless pressure the junior faces as a student-athlete, extends far beyond the confines of the field.

“Athletes are at risk for mental health struggles due to high athletic identity and identity foreclosure,” a study on the psychological impacts of musculoskeletal injuries said. “Injured athletes have specifically been shown to have higher rates of anxiety and depression when compared to the general population.


In the realm of collegiate sports, where dedication to both academics and athletics is paramount, the challenges of managing mental health alongside rigorous training schedules often remains hidden beneath the surface. Mental health among student-athletes has emerged as a pressing concern in collegiate environments nationwide.

At the University of Wisconsin, where academic rigor meets the competitive arena of collegiate sports, these challenges are particularly pronounced.

Intersection of academic and athletic excellence at UW

The dual life of student-athletes encapsulates a delicate balance between academic pursuits and athletic commitments.

“Our weekly schedule consists of a three or four-hour block (lift, skate meetings), depending on class schedule you have a few in mornings 9-4 daily,” women’s hockey captain Britta Curl told The Badger Herald.

Juggling rigorous training schedules, competitions and academic responsibilities demand exceptional time management and resilience. Student-athletes navigate a unique terrain where they excel both on the field and in the classroom, embodying discipline and dedication.

At UW, student-athletes must maintain a minimum cumulative GPA ranging between 1.8 and 2.0 — increasing with each academic year — over the span of their five years of eligibility in order to dress for matches or games. This GPA requirement is more flexible than Big Ten counterparts University of Michigan and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which both require student-athletes of all academic years to maintain a 2.0 to practice and compete.

This dual identity shapes athletes’ collegiate experiences, fostering valuable skills such as teamwork, perseverance and prioritization.

“Changes with the transfer portal name, image and likeness…[alongside] things that have always been demanding for student-athletes — extremely busy schedules and trying to juggle 20 hours or so of sport with full academic load — has a really substantial effect on [student-athletes’] wellbeing,” UW Director of Mental Health and Sports Psychology David Lacocque said.

Barriers to receiving support

The month of April, recognized as National Stress Awareness Month by the National Institutes of Health, works to bring attention to the negative impact of stress.

A 2023 study on mental health in college athletes revealed that approximately 22.3% of collegiate athletes are at risk for depression, 12.5% exhibit signs of anxiety and 8% display low self-esteem. These findings underscore the pressing need for tailored mental health support within athletic programs.

While no significant differences were observed across genders, academic statuses, or sport types for depression or self-esteem, disparities in anxiety levels between male and female athletes highlight the importance of gender-sensitive interventions. Moving forward, there is still a need for academic and athletic institutions to prioritize the well-being of student-athletes by implementing comprehensive mental health screening and support systems to foster resilience on and off the field.

A multitude of factors contribute to the mental health challenges faced by student-athletes. The NCAA Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Study found academics, future plans and finances to be the most cited factors in mental health challenges of athletes. 

But, 34% of male and female athletes reported some reservations in asking for help. The report also found many student athletes felt more reluctant to discuss mental health compared to physical health issues with their coaches, which could indicate mental health challenges going underreported.

From the relentless pursuit of perfection to the fear of failure, the pressures inherent in collegiate athletics can take a significant toll.

Fostering a positive team culture

Within the tight-knit communities of sports teams, social dynamics can both nurture and undermine mental health.

The women’s hockey team operates with a light-hearted dynamic, emphasizing enjoyment and avoiding excessive seriousness, Curl said. The team is able to recognize the moments that require a shift in focus and members are willing to buckle down when necessary.

“The pressure we feel largely stems from within ourselves, driven by our own high expectations and how much we value our fan base, but there are moments when it feels like we’re letting them down,” Curl reflects.

McConnell spoke similarly of the soccer team, where camaraderie evolves annually as new members join. Despite these changes, McConnell emphasizes the strong bonds formed within the team, describing them as “30 built-in best friends.” While the focus during soccer sessions is on strategizing for success, off the field the atmosphere is relaxed, allowing for genuine companionship and non-soccer-related fun. McConnell said part of a positive team culture involves maintaining separation between interactions during games and off the field.

But not every athlete can claim to have experienced this kind of rapport. Coaches and athletic programs play a pivotal role in shaping the experiences of student-athletes. Throughout her life playing sports during childhood, women’s hockey player Laila Edwards has experienced it all.

“Those that are aggressive and negative have a detrimental impact on my mental health due to the excessive tension and pressure they create, which isn’t conducive to a healthy mind and body,” Edwards told The Badger Herald. “This approach isn’t something I appreciate … My current coaching staff trusts us to perform our roles but also offers feedback to help us grow as individuals and players.”

While some coaching approaches can breed toxicity and diminish mental health, others foster an environment of trust, growth, and support. For Edwards and numerous others, the coaches who prioritize constructive feedback and trust in their athletes’ abilities not only enhance athletic performance, but contribute to the personal development of the individuals under their guidance. 

Strengthening the relationships between coach and players allows for a supportive environment when trying new or seemingly unconventional practices, such as meditation for personal development.

Meditation as a means of prevention

Meditation, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the action, or an act, of meditating; continuous thought or musing upon one subject or series of subjects.”

UW Director of Meditation Training Chad McGehee said meditation can be used to train the brain to perform more effectively in high pressure situations.

“It’s important to acknowledge that when people hear the word meditation, traditional or stereotypical images may come to mind,” McGehee said. “Once that is named and addressed —  understanding that we were training meditation for high-performance environments — those stereotypes aren’t going to last very long.”

McGehee oversees meditation practice, collaboration and research with numerous groups on campus, including student-athletes. In beginning his practice about 20 years ago due to personal reasons, McGehee found meditation transformative, so he went on to share his knowledge and experience.

The value of meditation for student-athletes extends far beyond the physical realm, encompassing mental well-being and performance enhancement. In the fast-paced and high-pressure world of competitive sports, meditation serves as a powerful tool for athletes to cultivate focus, resilience and emotional balance, McGehee said.

“[Student-athletes are] training mindfulness, our attention,” McGehee said. “Meta-awareness is what we call it scientifically. It’s the eye of the hurricane stability, being aware of what’s happening in our minds and our bodies when it’s happening and the skill of decentering or acceptance — treating our thoughts as passing phenomena.”

By incorporating mindfulness practices into their routines, student-athletes can effectively manage stress, anxiety and distractions, thereby optimizing their performance both on and off the field. Meditation offers a sanctuary for athletes to quiet their minds, sharpen their concentration and visualize success — empowering them to harness their full potential.

“Would you be better in your sport?” McGehee said. “Would you be better academically? Would you be better in your personal life? If you could have greater control of where your attention is? Be aware of what you’re experiencing as you’re experiencing it?”

If so, meditation can be repurposed for every person in every place.

Support through psychologists

In the quest to support student-athletes’ mental well-being, the role of mental health professionals is paramount.

Here at UW, Lacocque and his team of experts at the Department of Mental Health and Sports Psychology follow the public health model.

“We hold ourselves accountable to delivering initiatives and support for student-athletes at the levels of primary prevention,” Lacocque said.

The framework employed by the Department of Mental Health and Sports Psychology for fostering resilience and wellness encompasses a spectrum of mental health support, ranging from early intervention, to routine treatment, to critical care services. 

At the foundation are initiatives aimed at primary prevention and early intervention, such as mid-semester mental health screenings designed to identify and address emerging stressors among student-athletes.

A 2021 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that regular health screenings ensure student-athletes receive treatment as early as possible. Screenings at regular intervals can also help destigmatize mental health challenges. At UW, this proactive approach allows the Department of Mental Health and Sports Psychology to promptly assist those exhibiting symptoms and tailor support according to their individual needs. 

Additionally, the department has implemented Mental Health First Aid training, providing essential skills and knowledge to support immediate crisis response and ongoing mental health support. These initiatives, situated within a comprehensive framework, aim to create an environment conducive to the holistic well-being of student-athletes.

Through specialized training for coaches with Lacocque and athletic mental health provider Jay Bean, Mental Health First Aid is tailored to the unique needs of athletics, offering bimonthly sessions for coaches, staff, and administrators.

“Our goal is to create a culture of accountability where everyone is equipped to recognize and respond to mental health concerns, regardless of their role within the athletics department,” Dr. Lacocque said.

With half of their time dedicated to consulting with coaches and being present in sport spaces, the Mental Health First Aid team strives to destigmatize mental health and foster trust among student-athletes. This approach has yielded significant results, as evidenced by the quadrupling of student-athletes seeking services after embedding a provider within the football program, Dr. Lacocque described.

When discussing mental health, it’s crucial to clarify that it encompasses a wide spectrum, from addressing mental health problems to promoting flourishing and resilience. Lacocque emphasizes this distinction during engagements such as Mental Health First Aid sessions and coaches’ roundtable discussions.

Moving forward

Despite UW’s growing network of support, challenges remain. Mental health providers continue to work to dispel stereotypes surrounding mental health, such as the notion that seeking help indicates weakness or that mental health concerns are uncommon.

In reality, approximately one in four college student-athletes who utilize the resources of the Department of Mental Health and Sports Psychology experience significant mental health symptoms each year, highlighting the importance of destigmatizing conversations around mental health and encouraging proactive support.

Through open dialogue and proactive initiatives, the Department of Mental Health and Sports Psychology aims to create an environment where mental health is prioritized, and individuals feel empowered to seek support regardless of the perceived severity of their concerns.

“[Student-athletes] recognize that there’s another level that they can achieve, that they can improve their coping skills, that they can improve their mental skills and get to a higher level of mental well-being,” Lacocque said.

The narrative of student-athletes at UW is one characterized by resilience, determination and a relentless pursuit of excellence amidst a variety of challenges. From the pressures of academic rigor to the demands of competitive athletics, student-athletes navigate a complex landscape where the pursuit of success often intersects with the preservation of mental well-being. 

The pivotal role played by coaches, mental health professionals and advocacy groups underscores the collective effort required to create a supportive and inclusive environment for student-athletes.

“Looking forward, [there needs to be] less stigma [surrounding the mental health] of student athletes,” Edwards said. “Mental health isn’t a joke and some people really struggle with it. You have to have uncomfortable conversations to move forward.”

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