Thinking about what it means to be a student-athletes calls to mind many different stereotypes and images. Some may think of jocks; they may picture football players or soccer fields. Anyone who is, or was, an athlete conjures up the scent of sweat and weight room mats and the excitement of competition. What slips the minds of many when they think of an athlete is mental strain, the internal and external pressures they face. Athletics, especially high school and college athletics are about the struggle to maintain a balance between dedication and obsession.
There has been a lot of drama in the college sports world over the past few months. In January, a 19 year old track athlete, Madison Holleran, jumped to her death because of academic and athletic pressures. While I am not a track star at an Ivy League school, I am a female, freshman track athlete and can relate in part to the pressures Holleran must have faced. This tragic story hit very close to home as I struggled, with my teammates, to balance a fairly rigorous practice schedule, academic classes, a new lifestyle and atmosphere and a social life (at least occasionally.)
One of my teammates and close friends, Danny Dugan, is from the same hometown as Holleran. He and his brother, who are both exceptional track athletes and students, face many stressors. Dugan explains that he gets satisfaction from his performance and success on the track. He sets very high standards for himself based on his own abilities, and also on the abilities of other athletes. One of the most toxic elements of track and field is that everything can be compared, every number crunched and someone is always, indisputably, the best. There is a fine line between being motivated by the accomplishments of the elite and being sucked into a demoralizing and futile game of comparisons.
Another major event in college sports is the debate over whether or not college athletes should unionize to help minimize stress and maximize benefits. Northwestern recently formed the first union of collegiate athletes and it has the potential to change the face of college sports. If athletes become employees, the implications are staggering. There would be an expectation to pay the athletes and to compensate them for medical bills etc. I do not think that his is the solution to reducing stress on collegiate athletes. These unions would only benefit popular sports such as men’s football and basketball. . This sort of system would only draw money away from other, already under-funded programs like track and field, volleyball, etc.
Many of the athletes whom a union would benefit are essentially being paid with scholarships for thousands of dollars. Most schools cover medical expenses if insurance will not. While a union does not seem to be the answer, schools do need to ensure certain benefits and adequate care for athletes. In addition to the typical athletic training room for sports injuries, colleges should have sports psychologists on staff. Informative workshops on how to handle stress, specifically for athletes, should supplement the typical workshops on drug use and concussions.
There are tools that institutions can provide student athletes to help them manage stress, and these are crucial. However, much of the pressure an athlete faces are internal. Competition is in our nature and performance is our driving force. The most important instrument in stress management for athletes is recognizing that they are playing a sport that they should enjoy. No one can eliminate the stress of competition, which is why we play and run and train. We must remember that there is a fine line between dedication and obsession; and it is important to realize which side of the line we stand on.