Self-Care and Mental Wellness for Athletes

 Self-Care and Mental Wellness for Athletes

By Oni Boulware

The list of professional athletes who have recently shared information about their struggles with mental health wellness is growing: Naomi Osaka. Simone Biles. Solomon Thomas. The personal stories shared by accomplished national athletes and the growing awareness about the importance of taking care of one’s mental health are helping challenge the idea that mental health and physical health are separate things. 

For student athletes, the potential for stress may even be higher. Student athletes must balance the demands of a full academic load as well as the physical training requirements of competing on school sports teams and maybe even on an extracurricular club teams. To discuss the stress and pressures student athletes face, as well as the importance of self-care, Nevada95 invited Dr. Corey Kuhn, a therapist who works with youth in Nevada, to share some thoughts over a Lunch and Learn Webinar held last month.  This blog summarizes some of the major points of her full presentation, which can be found here: Self-Care and Mental Health Recovery.

First, student athletes should be aware of mental exhaustion. As Dr. Kuhn noted, mental exhaustion can result from being overwhelmed by a lot of responsibilities and from “repeated exposure to stress.” The stress of school and all of the academic pressures that come with it. The stress related to the demands of sports and competition. And the stress of relationships with friends, family, and even boyfriends or girlfriends. All of that stress can compound and lead to burnout. And it can look like exhaustion. The exhaustion can lead to reduced performance in school and on the field. A 2015 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) survey found that “30 percent of participating student-athletes reported feeling seriously overwhelmed during the past month. A third struggled to find energy for other tasks because of the physical and psychological demands of their sport. Nearly 25 percent felt mentally exhausted. With the constant pressure to be in peak physical shape, as well as performing in the classroom, collegiate student-athletes often feel overworked and overwhelmed.”

Second, the danger of compounded stress and burnout make it important to engage in self-care practices. Self-care includes healthy lifestyle changes and behaviors that can help increase performance and help increase resilience. Studies show that engaging in self-care practices can actually increase overall productivity by offsetting some of the stress and pressure athletes encounter. In a recent article, Kristin Hoff, director of student-athlete mental health and performance service at Marquette University, stated, “Athletes can start by acknowledging the importance of maintaining all aspects of wellness. First and foremost, it’s important for athletes to pay attention to their emotional well-being and appreciate that attending mental health is a natural part of training and in life.”

Some of the strategies that help with positive self-care are the following:

#: Hydrate. Given that we are living in Nevada, which is an arid state, hydration is important. Monitoring one’s hydration and maintaining hydration is important. It does a lot for one’s physical health, but also for one’s mental health.

#2: Sleep. Sleep is important because a lot of important things happen when we sleep. For example, Dr. Kuhn explained that our muscles detox and micro tears and tissue damage to muscles gets repaired while we sleep.  Also, sleep helps consolidate memory so that the important things a student athlete learns throughout the day (like derivative equations) gets organized and stored when a student sleeps.

#3: Eat real food. As a student athlete, it is important to make sure one is consuming those vitamins and minerals and protein and the macro and micronutrients throughout the day and throughout your week. So many student athletes find themselves running from school to practice.  But Dr. Kuhn reminds us that it is important to “set up a plan, plan those meals, plan that nutrition and feed your body and feed your mind.” Remember that your young brain uses the first 1,000 calories of the day, not even counting exercise or other functions. Healthy foods are important for feeding mental and physical health.

#4: Relax. This may involve spending time with family or friends. It could mean taking long walks or drawing. Above all, be mindful about the things that fill you up, give you joy, and help you relax. Dr. Kuhn warns that not all self-care practices serve to reduce stress.  (Is scrolling through social media something that truly fills you up or something that you do out of habit or in the absence of identifying what activities truly fill you up?? Dr. Kuhn states, “When we think about self-care as a practice, the goal is to balance and counteract stress.” One needs things with purpose to balance one’s physical chemistry and mental chemistry, and really recharge to manage stress and manage feelings of burnout or depression or anxiety. And these practices of identifying how to de-stress have to be intentional: “Have a plan or plan to fail.”

#5: Address pain and injury. As a student athlete, one may feel the need to push through and keep going even when you’re hurting. But there is a practice of mental healthcare and physical healthcare to address those injuries. Dr. Kuhn warns us to do the things that you need to do to be able to maintain this pace for a long time and not just for the next game or the next practice, but thinking long term, “How am I going to maintain this pace and not burn myself out physically and mentally?” This could involve picking up another sport for fun or cross-training purposes. it’s not about being the best or anything like that but engaging in something that is a little bit different for you.

#6: Intentionally grab moments of self-care. Dr. Kuhn reminds us that we can and should try to intentionally grab moments of self-care throughout the day. Can you sit in the grass for 10 minutes after school before you run to practice?  Can you leave the school cafeteria and sit on a bench in the courtyard for 10 minutes? Can you duck into the school library and sit and check in? This is something that can be helpful. Try to find intentional moments of relaxation and ask yourself — What would help me feel more balanced? What would help me release some of the tension of the day?

Following these strategies and building them into a daily practice so that they become habits can help reduce stress. This is critical to one’s long term mental and physical health.