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What does mental health support actually look like for college athletes? I asked a college athlete

Good morning, and thanks for your continued support of Extra Points.

Today is a travel day for me...I'm flying out to Washington D.C. this morning for LEAD1, some campus visits, and seeing some old pals. I'll be back at my desk on Thursday, but if you're in DC, drop me a line, I'd love to say hello.

Today, I'm happy to pass the microphone over to Karina Dyner, a fencer for The Ohio State University. I asked Karina to write a newsletter detailing her thoughts on how a major college sports reform issue directly impacted her. She chose to write about mental health challenges that college athletes face.

I'm gonna go ahead and turn off the paywall for this one, although I'd certainly support your subscription support, because I use that money to pay college athletes to write EP newsletters or appear on Going For Two.

In fact, if you use this discount code, you get 20% off, and Karina gets a little bonus.

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Karina's thoughts are below:

What does mental health support actually look like for college athletes?

Mental health is an extremely important concept that has started to receive more attention in the last couple of years. However, although schools, parents, teachers, and numerous individuals acknowledge its overall importance in everyday life, they sometimes don’t understand what sort of stresses a modern college athlete really faces, and how those stresses might create mental health challenges.

College athletes dedicate countless hours to training, traveling, and competing, hours that we can’t spend on academics like our peers. Despite this, we are required to have a certain GPA and we must turn in assignments at the same time as our classmates. This certainly generates stress within the student-athlete community.

As a fencer at the Ohio State University, I wake up every day at 7:15am. I have just enough time to eat something, get ready and get to practice before 8:30AM. We practice until 11:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we practice until 10:30 and then proceed to lift or conditioning from 11:00am to 12:00pm. After this, I must eat lunch, shower, and rush to class. I usually have two to three classes in the afternoon. This semester, I am taking 13 credit hours, seven of which are courses for my major, Political Science.

After class, I must spend the last couple of hours of my day studying or completing assignments. Many times, it feels like the day is not long enough for everything I must do. If I am injured and need physical therapy, rehabilitation or simply recovery, these are hours of my day that I simply don’t have so they must come out of my sleep schedule. Not to mention the multiple other activities such as spending time with friends, participating in clubs, playing guitar and reading that I don’t usually have the time to do. I would be interested in participating in more clubs involving the Latino community at Ohio State as well as volunteer and social work clubs.

I usually don’t go to sleep until after 12:00am.

Therefore, I do not get the 8-10 hours of sleep that is recommended for athletes. Not only this, but our available time to study for exams and complete assignments is after hours of training and competing, leaving us physically and mentally exhausted. It is extremely difficult to concentrate after an exhausting day of training or on the bus right after a competition. Yes, buses. Some sports, such as fencing, take 7 to 12 hour buses to competitions, sometimes every other week during our season, not chartered flights. Even at a school like Ohio State.

Although some professors and teacher’s assistants are extremely helpful and comprehensive, others don’t want to provide any type of ‘special treatment’ and require us to turn in assignments just like all our classmates regardless of if we are traveling or competing.

This stress before competitions can certainly affect our performance, in the classroom, and sometimes during athletic competition as well. We are always reminded that we could talk to our professors and ask for extensions. Nonetheless, if we are constantly asking for extensions, professors are less likely to allow them and the workload simply piles up with new assignments.

Sometimes you might even feel judged for asking extensions as some people believe we want some type of “special treatment” when in reality we simply lack the time that other students have.

Academic stress is one common thing many college athletes experience, however, there are other stress factors that we experience as well.

One thing many seem to forget, including fans, some coaches, and sponsors, is that athletes are humans. We won’t always perform the way we want to, and we have things in our everyday lives that might affect the way a competition goes. One example in my case, was the death of a family member one day before a very important competition. But even smaller events such as a fight with a close one or even an ongoing injury can be a possible distraction.

College athletes, and all athletes for that matter, are not machines. But that’s not a bad thing!

Because we are humans, we can push ourselves even through pain, injuries, mental health issues and constant pressure and continue giving our best because we love the fight and because we don’t give up when something is not ideal. The mental part of the sport that can cause us to lose, could also be the sole reason we win another competition.

What certainly does not help, is having more pressure than we already have from media, family members, and many others who don’t truly understand what college athletes go through every day. Things people say about our performance can affect our mental health, as they sometimes disregard all the hard work and effort we have done up until that moment if we don’t meet or exceed the expectation set for us. This pressure definitely looks different in fencing because the sport does not attract the same level of media scrutiny as other sports. There might not be as many people critiquing our performance, but that doesn’t make hurtful comments hurt any less.

In my case, there is also the pressure of being constant with results to be able to obtain a deal or sponsorship. This also happens to countless fencers around the world. In a sport as small as fencing this is a difficult thing to do. Fencing is not as popular in the world as other sports so less people watch it; therefore, it becomes challenging to find people or companies that are willing to invest in us. This definitely makes us feel less important and that our results and work are less valuable simply because our sport does not get as much attention as others.

I have been competing since I was 11 and I can say that, at least in my experience, pressure never goes away. We can learn to deal with it, but it is always going to be there. Support on the other hand, is something that is not always present, but it is necessary. After years of putting your mind and body through constant pain, exhaustion, and multiple disappointments, you need to feel supported to get back on your feet. This is something that fans, coaches, admins, and family members should always keep in mind.

Karina Dyner is a fencer at Ohio State. She is a native of San José, Costa Rica.

To sponsor a future Extra Points newsletter, please email [email protected]. For article ideas, newsletter feedback, FOIA tips, athlete NIL sponsorships and more, I'm at [email protected], or @MattBrownEP on Twitter, and @ExtraPointsMB on Instagram.

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