U helps athletes’ mental health

The athletics department relies on three in-house sports psychologists.

by Sam Kraemer

Just down the hall from the weight rooms, practice gym and study areas of the Bierman Field Athletic Building sits a special place where student-athletes can find help when stress levels from balancing school and athletics skyrocket.

An office in Bierman houses the athletics department’s three-person sports psychology staff, which ensures Minnesota’s student-athletes are healthy in both body and mind. Each year, the staff helps about 200 student-athletes with varying mental health-related issues.

“There have been a growing number of mental health instances on college campuses,” deputy athletics director Beth Goetz said. “And athletes aren’t immune from that.”

The growing number of cases led the NCAA to launch two studies on student-athletes and mental health: the Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in college study and the Study of College Outcomes and Recent Experiences.

Through the studies, the NCAA found that 31 percent of Division I men’s basketball players agreed with the statement, “My coach puts me down in front of others.”

“Their overall well-being is what we’re concerned about,” Goetz said of the student-athletes. “We want them to be in a place where they’re healthy and safe, so they can do what they need to do on the court, in the classroom and certainly in their personal lives as well.”

In addition, 67 percent of former Division I athletes and 42 percent of current Division I athletes included in the studies said they considered themselves “very happy.”

Carly Anderson, one of the three sports psychologists on staff at the University, said her office’s approach to the student-athletes is threefold: performance psychology, personal counseling and mental health assessment.

As a three-time team national champion gymnast at UCLA, Anderson uses her collegiate experience to relate to the student-athletes.

Moira Novak, director of athletic medicine for the University, said she thinks previous experience makes the psychology treatment easier for the student-athletes.

“There’s a degree of ‘street cred,’ and that helps. The student-athletes can acknowledge that they’ve been there,” Novak said.

Freshmen student-athletes are introduced to the sports psychology staff through an introductory course, Anderson said.

“As a campus community, we’ve worked to decrease the stigma that’s associated with mental health issues,” Novak said.

Through surveys, Novak said the student-athletes have been complimentary about the benefits of visiting the sports psychology staff.

“We’ve definitely seen the worst of what mental health issues can create for an individual,” Novak said. “But we’ve had athletes tell us we saved their lives here. … To know we’ve made that kind of difference is huge.”