By Bianca Viana & Nicolas Rontanini
This past summer tennis champion Naomi Osaka of Japan declared, “It’s okay not to be okay” in response to being fined for needing to miss French Open press conferences to take care of her mental health. Then at the Tokyo Olympics, American gymnast Simon Biles, who has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, withdrew from most of her events when she experienced extreme anxiety she called the “twisties,” a mental phenomenon in gymnastics in which athletes find themselves suddenly unable to perform familiar skills. By being forthcoming, these two young champions opened the door for other athletes to talk about the mental health stigmas and issues that are common throughout the sports world. It also enabled a conversation among Adelphi’s student athletes, through both a six-week workshop this fall called, “Let's Talk About Stress: Workshops for Student-Athletes” and a guest appearance by Julie Ertz, U.S. Women’s National Soccer Player and Olympian on Nov. 8.
“The press about the two Olympic athletes this summer definitely helped destigmatize mental health for athletes,” said Jessica Miller, a counselor in the Student Counseling Center (SCC). “We've been trying to engage with student athletes for years. There has been a lot of interest for individual counseling for athletes this year and for the six-week stress workshop for AU athletes. We plan to offer more workshops for athletes throughout the year.”
These workshops acknowledge that student athletes face a lot of stress that remains unseen. Between the vigorous scheduling of games and practices, classes and extracurriculars, student athletes are constantly in motion.
“I am currently a physical education permanent substitute at the Harborfields Central School District, a full-time graduate student for Health Education, and a student athlete for the women’s lacrosse team,” said Kailey Broderick, a women’s lacrosse player and AU graduate student, who attended the event with Ertz. “My schedule is busy and many times overwhelming.”
Dealing with a full-time schedule, jobs off-campus and athletic requirements, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. However, Adelphi has made strides in helping student athletes with their stress. Miller said the six-week workshop for student athletes that began Sept. 27, was designed to provide them with a place to talk about how stress impacts their academic and athletic performance, relationships and overall well-being, and covered a variety of topics from coping and self-care to academics and procrastination. She explained that each week the workshop focused on AU athletes and stress.
“We had about 10 athletes express interest in the workshop this semester and five to six attended per week,” Miller said. “Groups and workshops can be challenging to establish due to students' busy schedules (especially athletes), and the desire for individual and immediate support when a crisis arises. These athletes, with the help and support from their coaches, decided to make the six-week commitment to discuss stress and the athlete experience proactively. They didn't wait until they were struggling or there was a crisis or emergency to seek support. It was really nice to watch the group grow and bond over the semester. We're looking forward to getting started with a new group of athletes in the spring. It was definitely a unique workshop as athletes from all different sports came together to explore and compare their athletic and college experiences at Adelphi.”
Miller explained that tips discussed in the workshop included not handling stress alone—reaching out to teammates, coaches, friends, parents and roommates. Another topic was listening to their bodies and giving it what it needs—rest, stretching, sleep and nutrition—and creating a healthy balance in managing their time.
An emphasis on making room for a little “me time” is what Broderick said is the hardest thing to do. “Especially when you have a busy schedule, but it is essential to be able to deal with your stress,” she said. “Having ‘me’ time is anything I enjoy that is relaxing; it’s a time out from my constantly moving life.”
Miller said the athletes also talked about “reminding yourself at times why you got into your sport in the first place, what you love about it, what makes it fun, and using meets, games or practices in a positive way to improve performance in the future.”
Seeing Olympic athletes talk about their struggles was inspiring for students going through a similar experience, according to Miller.
“[With Biles], you look at the best gymnast the world’s ever seen, and she pulled herself out of the Olympics. So athletes were like ‘even the best need help,” Miller said. “It normalized it in a way, that it’s okay to get counseling, that it’s okay to say I need to take a mental health day, okay to say I need support. I can't speak for Osaka, but I have followed Biles through the media since the Olympics and have watched her perform in person since. She seems better than ever. She does not appear to be plagued by anxiety and seems to be having fun and performing amazing tricks in the sport she loves. ”
In addition to the six-week workshop, Adelphi athletes had the chance to hear Ertz speak about the issues surrounding mental health at the “Mental Health Matters, No Shame in the Game” conversation held on Nov. 8. Among the topics covered, she also advised young athletes that self care is of utmost importance. She talked about having a support system and that person who is willing to pull you out of situations. She advised athletes to step away when a situation may be harmful to your mental health. However, Ertz, urged all attendees to always give their best wherever you are and remember that comparing yourself to others can be harmful.
Miller saw all these conversations this semester as a positive development. “Adelphi's Student Counseling Center continues to work with athletes and teams as we have done in the past,” she said. “We are thrilled that athletes are becoming more comfortable discussing mental health, continue to come in for support and services, and that they are excited about the unique workshops being offered to them.”
Being an athlete can come with challenges, and taking care of yourself is one of them. If you are struggling or need help, the SCC is available to all students and is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org and 516-877-3646.