College athletics learn to manage mental health after pandemic and stress upends goals

Student athletes, Cameron Dobbs (left), Alex Yang (middle), and Candice Saxod (right) think deeply about their mental health experiences.

After Covid-19 shut down the sports world for months and changed how athletes practice and compete, college athletes have been speaking up about how the pandemic has affected their sport and mental health. 

“It’s important for athletes to talk about mental health because it encourages everyone to talk about it and be more aware of it,” said Cameron Dobbs, a student assistant coach for the University of Miami Hurricanes volleyball team and a former player herself. “Also, athletes need to know they’re not alone and that it’s okay to struggle and learn along the way.”

After gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from some Olympic events and Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open because of mental health concerns and general stress, conversations were started about the importance of athletes taking care of their mental health. 

“I think there’s an under emphasis on mental aspects on the court, like how to focus on your game, but also the health side of things, like making sure you’re taking care of yourself,” said Alex Yang, the captain of the New York University men’s tennis team. “And all that stress off the court feeds into our performance on court, and as captain, I want to address it more on our team.”

Dr. Abraham Chileuitt, a sports neurologist that focuses on concussions in Miami, Florida, said many of his patients often come in with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, which could be worsened if they suffered a head injury.

“Everything they do is scrutinized, their performance, their game,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of times the scrutiny is more negative than positive.”

While this may be a new media discussion, the mental health problems of athletes have been happening for decades. During the pandemic, student-athletes had both their athletic and academic careers come to a standstill. 

“I got admitted to NYU three weeks before everything shut down in the city,” said Candice Saxod, a swimmer for New York University. “And it disconnected me from my normal life and routine, and for a year I didn’t have classes in person. So, having to go back to in-person is  really tiring, like today I had my first college exam in person, and I completely freaked out.”

But, Saxod is hopeful that things will return to normal once she has time to adapt.

“It’s just small details that you used to get used to again, and those things take time,” said Saxod. “There’s different ways of handling things, and it just takes time.”

Yang was considering quitting tennis earlier in his career to focus on academics and other interests. However, during the pandemic, he had a break from his sport and competitions for months. 

“It’s always good, I think, to get a mental break,” said Yang. “And I think in those four months, there was no stress, no pressure, and I actually grew to love the sport a lot more. The break gave me more perspective and reminded me that it is just a sport and I have to still take care of myself.”