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 truly a 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 classroom, 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.

How Do I Talk To My Athlete About Therapy?


Cortnee White, Mental Performance Specialist

Parents: How can I approach my athlete about what you do?

Athletes from a very young age are faced with unique challenges and pressures. Then you pair that with pubescence..yeah, things are complicated. My biggest population is around the adolescent age. Whether these athletes are just coming in for sport specific help or more mental health reasons there is usually some hesitation. Something I get asked on regular basis from parents is “How do I approach my athlete about what you do?

For some context, I am a therapist who works in sports. So, I offer counseling for athletes struggling with anxiety, stress, and family or team conflicts. I also help athletes with performance-enhancing mental skills. It can be confusing for parents, coaches, and the athlete to know how to talk about this and what it will even look like. “Am I going to counseling or a mental coach?” “Is there something wrong with me or my skills in sports?” 

I go by many names like mental performance specialist, mental strength coach, sports counselor, athlete therapist, and so on. While there is a pretty big difference between a therapist and a mental skills coach, I can be both. I don’t want to mask or hide who or what I really do but using other terms can be helpful in getting your athlete some help. I hope I can make Athlete Therapist sound cool and exciting one day but for now I’m open to changes. I am a mixture of a sport psychology, therapy, and athlete. 

Baseball player using mental skills while in play.
Baseball player using mental skills while in play.

A few examples of what that means.  

  • I use counseling skills like listening, validating feelings, and positive regard.  
  • I use therapy techniques like CBT which means I believe the way we think has a direct affect on our mood and performance. So, my therapy looks like “what was the thought you had right before you stepped up to the plate?”
  • I use sport psychology techniques for goal setting, focus and concentration. 
  • I use my athlete knowledge and love for sports to connect and understand the culture. 
  • I am licensed, I am supervised, I am trained for the athletes who are maybe struggling on a deeper level that reaches beyond the sport. That licenses and training does wonders for those who just need a little bit of help too. 

Parents, this is for you.

Parents, I know you are still trying to understand what this is too. I am an expert in the field of helping athletes heal, grow, communicate, set goals, get to know themselves as people and athletes, build confidence, and manage the pressures that come with being elite. I am a safe non-judgmental space for your athlete to step away from competition, from perfection, from expectation, and have an hour of conversation, exploration, and hopefully relief. A bonus is I can help in all areas of performance like school, sport, job, and relationships. For the athlete I am much like their coach in that I help them learn new strategies, learn new skills, and work with them in their athletic journey. I am an athlete who helps athletes with the things we cant fix physically. 

Team work on the field and in the home.
Team work on the field and in the home.

Here are some of my tips on talking about it. 

  1. Everyone knows this can be an uncomfortable topic to present and teens can smell fear a mile away. If you’re uncomfortable and unsure they probably will be too. Explore it together!

2. Express your concerns while focusing on specific mood or behavior changes. “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming home from practices looking upset” or “We know you have been struggling with your performance and feeling worried about it” Empathize with them about what you have been noticing. For example: “It can be so frustrating and upsetting to be struggling and not know how to fix it. 

3. Express your limitations and the coaches limitations for helping. Most of the time the athlete has been struggling for a while and parents and coaches just don’t know how else to help. It’s okay to tell your teen this is out of your scope BUT that you know someone who can help! “I wonder if talking to someone that is an expert would help you?” 

4.  Presenting the expert of athletes! You do not have to say therapy or counseling at all. Here’s an example “Miss or coach White helps only athletes including professional ones (that always helps) with things like slumps, mental blocks and even those pre-game jitters. She was an athlete and coach so that’s pretty cool. She could probably really understand and help all of us out. 

5. Teens want to be respected, included and feel like they have some control. Give them options on someone they might like to meet with or maybe even have them do their own research and ask questions. 

I hope this brings some clarity or maybe more questions I can answer. In summary what I do can cover a lot of bases or just one base. Coming to see me does not mean you are crazy, broken, or weak. I hope you can line me up next to the position coach you see weekly, the nutrition coach you check in with monthly, or the strength coach you see every day. We all specialize in areas that the other one doesn’t, all working together to help an athlete stronger in skills, body, and mind. 


Are you an athlete or a parent of an athlete that is struggling with performance declines, anxieties or mental blocks?

Head over to

Challenge The Challenger

Cortnee White, Performance Specialist

Are you up for a challenge? Ready to compete? Willing to do what it takes to win? I hope so because this challenger is the toughest one you might ever face…


The Challenger

Of course I am talking about thoughts. Most of the athletes I work with are elite in their sport and discuss their thoughts as if it is the toughest opponent they face daily. Self-criticizing, what if thinking, I should have done this or I should have done that. These type of thoughts are the driving force behind low confidence, poor self-esteem, and performance issues. We can attribute poor self-talk and the thoughts we have to many aspects but that is a step we will have to skip for now.

Self-defeating thoughts run rampant through the minds of athletes, some more than others of course and some sports more than others. A recent study suggests we have around 6,000 thoughts a day, 85% percent are negative and 95% are repetitive. Yikes right!? If this is true imagine the mind of athletes who’s life is surrounded by trying to be perfect, achieving greatness, and keeping their outside life just as in order. Well, I can imagine it because it is my job to dive into the mind of the athlete and the study seems pretty legit to me. I hate for this to sound extremely harsh and that being an athlete is terrible because it’s not, but I feel it is my job to share that harsh reality that is true for so many.

The Challenge

Thoughts and emotions are scary, we try to hide from them, run from them or just ignore them. We hope they will go away, fade and never come back. Unfortunately, they usually don’t and just keep coming back bigger and stronger. Athletes do incredibly scary things every day like flip and twist through the air, dance in an arena full of eyes watching every move they make or stand in a batters box with the game on the line. Now that’s scary. Why can’t we do the same with our thoughts?

This is where I place the challenge. I challenge you to challenge your thoughts. I challenge you to confront them. I challenge you to not run from them, hide from them or ignore them. Your thoughts are always challenging you why not challenge them back.

How do I challenge my own thoughts you ask? Well, we as people like to make up stories, we like to assume, predict outcomes and fortune tell. Most of the time we are terribly wrong or we were right but it wasn’t as bad as we made it out to be. Instead of allowing those stories to be true, or consume us let’s take a breathe, stop the thought and ask a few questions.

  • Do I know this to be true?
  • Has anyone said this or am I just assuming?
  • What can I do in this moment to help me move on from this thought?

We have a lot of power and a lot of control if we choose to step up to the challenge. It is scary it is uncomfortable and hard but it is worth it. Like I mentioned above we skipped a step and that step is exploring where the thoughts stem from. This is where speaking to someone is so important. Let’s get to know the challenger, understand the things that make it so strong. That way we are more than prepared to take on whatever is in front of us. Whether that may be a competitor on the other side of the court an audition or maybe the thoughts that hold you back. These things are not weaknesses, or failures just challenges. Do you accept the challenge?

Cortnee White M.Ed

Let’s talk!

Are you an athlete or a parent of an athlete that is struggling with thoughts, emotions or performance issues?

I specialize in stress and anxiety management as well as mental blocks.

Email me at

Athlete Mindfulness: 3 Tips To Get You Started

Cortnee White, Performance Specialist

Practicing mindfulness as an athlete can actively relieve stress and anxiety. It can improve focus, attention and allow you to better regulate emotions before, during and after competitions.



Mindfulness simply means a person has achieved full awareness on the present moment. While being able to calmly acknowledge thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Whichever sport you play being able to stay in the moment, actively be in tune with your mind and body can be a powerful tool in performance and overall health.


We mindless eat all the time. We eat out of boredom, or for comfort, or for no other reason than the food is just there to eat. For athletes this is a great tool because nutrition is extremely important to your lifestyle. You eat to fuel your body and enhance your performance.

I would like you to take it a step further. Pay attention to not only what it will do for your body but what it can do for your mind. Engage your senses. Try to pick out flavors or spices as you chew. Are your senses saying you are hungry or is it something else. Set down the phone, turn off the TV and practice eating mindfully for it can bring you a sense of calmness and focus.


We spend majority of our time lost in thought. Some researchers say that roughly 50 percent of our day is spent thinking about something not in our immediate environment. Other research shows that we have thousands of daydreams every single day. That is a lot of time not being in the now. While being lost in thought can absolutely be a wonderful thing, it can also not be so great. Athletes being in the moment is critical for focus, reaction time, but most importantly for their well being.

Athlete Mindfulness: 3 Tips To Get You Started

Let’s say you are in a car on your way to practice. Thinking or imagining what that practice might be like. It started out positive then the what ifs come. You start feeling anxious about the conditioning you will have to do or the skill you have to try. Those thoughts turn to emotions and now you are dreading practice. Then before you can gather yourself you wake up and it’s time to get out. We have all had that moment where we wake up from being lost in thought and go oh wow.. how did I just get here. Kind of scary actually but, it’s a great example of how out of it we can be. So, practicing bringing that attention back to you sitting in that car and in the moment and allowing those thoughts to come and go. Being a now-ist takes conscious effort to say hey brain wake up and come back.


To prevent from drifting away in thought to help wake up the brain and gain some control, bring your attention to what you can see. On your way to practice look at the world around you. Notice the buildings, the colors of the cars passing by, look at a drive you’ve taken a million times in a new way. Look for that wow I never even noticed that was there moment. Take a look at your field, how green the grass is, how the gym floor was pieced together so tightly or notice how high the scoreboard stands.

Being mindful doesn’t mean we never have bad thoughts or anxious feelings, it means we have the ability to say hey thought or hey weird feeling i’d like to know more about you. We can become less caught up in worries about tomorrow or the regrets of yesterday.

“I talk mindfulness with all my athletes as it is a tool they can take with them into every situation in their life”


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