College Athletes: The Stress You Carry

Cortnee White, Performance Specialist

The demands of playing at an elite level, staying on top of course work, and managing personal life can be a heavy load to carry.

Cortnee WHite

Becoming a college athlete is the ultimate dream come true. It is a huge milestone that signifies your talent, dedication, and advancement into a career or continued athletic career. It is a truly great experience but being a college athlete is always bigger than the sport itself. Young adults step into a new world both exciting and frightening. This transition demands athletes to be their best in the game, in the class room, and in this new world. Not to mention the added changes and disruption Covid has caused. Stress in situations like this can become more prevalent and harder to manage.

What is Stress?

Stress is defined by how the brain and body respond to any demand. The demands of practice, competition, school, work, or travel. We can experience both good and bad stress. Some stress powers athletes to perform better and hold them accountable for being on time. Stress goes away as we complete tasks or finish challenging events. However, when an athlete experiences extended periods of stress, or feels that the demands of competition, injuries, school, or life are never ending it can impair functioning beyond their ability to play well.

The Stress You Carry

I like to explain stress to college athletes as the weight they carry around in their backpacks or athletic bags. I sure remember taking multiple bags with me everywhere on campus. In those bags, we have things we put in and take out as needed. Other things stay in there, we never seem to be able to take it out, or maybe we even overlook a few things that don’t seem significant. We take those things with us everywhere, to the gym, stadium, classroom, and home. We can even continue to cram the bag, trying to pile more things and hold it together. At some point that bag cannot hold anymore and starts to break. Like that bag, we are only able to hold so much for so long. If we don’t unpack the stress, or have the means to cope with it, our body and mind suffer.

When college athletes come to see me it is initially because of a performance decline. Something just doesn’t feel right. Most athletes believe that they must shut out all outside problems, stressors or worries and step into practice or game mode and perform like nothing is going on. Some may be able to do that for lengthy periods of time without any significant signs but for most the stress shows up.

Squeezing a stress ball for stress.
Stress ball for college athletes.

Stress can affect people and athletes in many different ways but, there are always commonalities.

How Stress Shows Up.

Cognitive signs:

  • Worrying or negative thoughts. (What if I don’t play well, or I don’t even care anymore).
  • Trouble making decisions or concentrating. (Coach may say you are making a lot of mental errors).
  • Difficulty remembering or recalling information. (Remembering plays, or forgetting normally easy information ).

Emotional signs:

  • Easily agitated, or angered.
  • Feeling anxious, sad, or depressed.
  • Lower self-esteem, confidence, or motivation. (May feel like you want to quit, or can’t keep up with school).
  • Quicker to respond emotionally to errors or mistakes. (Crying easily or people might say they’ve never seen you react like that).

Physical signs:

  • Feeling exhausted and fatigued beyond workouts and schoolwork.
  • Increased muscle tension, tightness.
  • Stomach pain, cramping, or sick/nausea feeling.
  • Headaches or tension in or around the head.
  • Unable to eat as much or over-eating.
  • Sick more often than normal or injured/in pain more.

Behavioral signs:

  • Decline in performance (Doing uncharacteristic things in game/practice).
  • Decline in other areas of performance like school or work.
  • Sleep disturbance. (Unable to sleep or sleeping more than usual).
  • Increased conflicts with teammates, coaches and/or officials.
  • Withdrawal from normal activities, or poor engagement in practice/games.
  • Behavioral outbursts like throwing equipment, clenching hands, teeth or other.

As athletes venture into their college careers, the demand and loads tend to rise beyond their sport. In my work with college athletes I always look for specific demands that have changed, increased, and accumulated. Their sport and schoolwork has probably always been a stressor, but what does that look like now? I check in on their nutrition, sleep and travel schedules. How are they adapting to living on their own, their relationships with people, teammates and coaches? Are they injured?

Exhausted college athlete doing school work.
Exhausted college athlete doing school work.

Top Stressors Reported by College Athletes.

  1. Higher level of competition! The need to perform higher and more consistently than ever before. More demand on their body and mind.
  2. Schoolwork! Heavy class loads, time needed to complete work, and difficulty increased. Many feel they like they are constantly drowning in homework.
  3. Time in general! Athletes wake up workout, go to class, go to athletic trainers, find time to eat, go back to practice, do homework, and travel most weekends. They give up sleep to make more time. Terrible for functioning and recovery they need.
  4. What about our personal life!? These athletes miss home, have relationships, possibly are not on full scholarships, need to work or are surviving on very little .

Every athlete is different, has different circumstances and tolerances to how they respond to stress. Athletes are resilient, and can absolutely thrive at the collegiate level but, they are human, they are still developing and learning. It is important to be aware of the signs of stress both physically and mentally. To take some time to open up the backpack and manage the things we continue to lug around.

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