By: Julia Rowland
Life or death. That is how Jess Notaro describes the mental pressures of being a student-athlete at the highest level.
“I had an extremely hard time balancing my emotions and mental health trying to show up for every part of my life. And when I physically couldn’t show up, it felt like I had failed or done something wrong that day,” said Notaro, a member of the St. Bonaventure Division I women’s lacrosse program.
As a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athlete, not only can it feel difficult to show up, both physically and mentally, but for many, this feeling is all too common and can often encapsulate an athlete’s entire career.
In the modern era of collegiate athletics, student athletes are expected to be the best in every sector of their lives regardless of what those standards may entail in the form of sacrifice. From the field to the classroom and everywhere athletes walk in between, those pressures weigh heavily on these individuals.
“Especially at the top divisions, NCAA sports, they say, incentivize winning above all else, tying pay and bonuses for coaches and athletic departments whose athletes notch victories,” wrote Molly Hensley-Clancey in the Washington Post article, “Reeling from suicides, college athletes press NCAA: ‘This is a crisis.’”
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And when, for example, a player stops showing up to games, the public’s first thought is not are they okay? Instead, speculation regarding drug use, character issues, and lack of ability are thrown around by fans and students alike.
“It generated judgment centered around the stereotype that college athletes are unbreakable,” said Mikaela Brewer in a piece for Global Sport Matters
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>. Brewer is a former Stanford Cardinal women’s basketball player who was hospitalized her freshman year due to suicidal thoughts.
“The skills and abilities of athletes are undeniably inspiring and motivating, but still, we’re not suited for Mount Olympus — we have the same brains and physiology as everyone else. We are just as human,” Brewer added.
Brewer’s feelings around needing to conquer Mount Olympus have been shared by many. The collegiate sport culture is that of a never quit mentality no matter how much you may be hurting inside and out.
Cam Morosky felt compelled to do the same during his sophomore season on the Hamilton College baseball team.
“I pushed myself to the limit, even playing through a torn labrum in my shoulder in a desperate bid for approval from my coach. However, rather than bolstering my confidence, this experience shattered it,” said Morosky.
In 2022 alone, five college athletes died by suicide. In the Washington Post article written in the wake of Stanford women’s soccer goalkeeper Katie Meyers’ death by suicide, current and former college athletes told the Post that “they see the moment as a mental health crisis for college athletes.”
“That’s [after the five deaths by suicide] when I recognized this is a crisis,” said Mackenzie Fitzpatrick said. Fitzpatrick is a former University of Connecticut softball player who struggled with thoughts of burden and shame due to a string of injuries she sustained in competition.
“I was like, ‘This needs to be bigger.’” The Washington Post noted that she used her Instagram presence, “demanding change from the broader athletics community.” The time is now to attack this issue head-on.
Through 18 in-depth interviews with current and former NCAA athletes, the conversations yielded an observation that there is one person within athletics that holds a significant amount of power with regard to affecting the student athlete’s mental health.
“The role of a coach is undeniably influential when it comes to the confidence and mental well-being of their athletes” – Cam Morosky, Hamilton College Baseball ‘23
Cam Morosky at catcher in his final season at Hamilton College.
Coaches are tasked with a difficult job. They are teachers of a game where not only are emotions encouraged, but they often run high. That is what makes sports so special, emotions.
Though a coach’s job can be heavy, the power they carry to influence their athlete’s mental well-being is even heavier.
Liam Murray played football at Division III St. Lawrence University from 2017-2020. He said he’s familiar with a coach’s impact.
“They [the coach] can control your whole experience,” said Murray.
The interviews have helped to show the ways in which a coach may be negatively affecting their athletes as well as ways they have positively affected their mental health. These individuals also provided advice to their former coach, and all coaches, in hopes that they could help facilitate a more productive and healthier environment for the athletes of today and the future.
With great power comes great responsibility.
The athletes said, unfortunately, there are too many coaches who do not take enough responsibility for their actions.
In an informal survey sent to the interviewees, they were asked to vote on a scale of one to 10 how impactful a coach was on the mental health of a student athlete. The average of 27 individuals was 8.52.
The pie graph depicts the survey’s results of the 27 athletes who voted on a scale of 1-10 how impactful a coach was on the mental health of a student athlete. 40.7% (11 athletes) said 10, 18.5% (5 athletes) said 9, 14.8% (4 athletes) said 8, 22.2% (6 athletes) said 7, and 3.7% (1 athlete) said 6.
Notaro, the redshirt sophomore at St. Bonaventure, rated a coach’s impact on a player’s mental health as a 6 during her interview. Through her first two seasons as a NCAA Division I lacrosse player, Notaro has experienced many ups and downs in her player/coach relationships as well as her personal life.
Jess Notaro competing in a lacrosse game in the spring of 2023.
“This feeling of unimportance that my first coach had given me, very strongly impacted my mental health and still can creep back into my brain sometimes. However, my coaches this past year had reversed that effect by constantly instilling in me that I was important and that I was a necessity to our team” said Notaro.
The current Bonaventure standout noted that during her redshirt first-year season, she faced a lot of personal struggles in her life outside of lacrosse, and that was still too much for a positive coach to help shift her mental state.
On the other end of the spectrum, a sophomore on Notaro’s team, Brooke Piper, believes a coach’s impact on their player’s mental health is a 10.
“I believe that a coach can have everything to do with a player’s mental health. Throughout high school my coach had made an enormous impact on me that I did not even realize was happening [in the moment]. To this day, I [still] reach out to her for advice,” Piper said.
Brooke Piper competes in a 2023 spring game as a freshman.
Being a coach comes with a vast amount of responsibility.
“Coaches have a tremendous impact on players’ mental health and will always leave a mark, good or bad,” Piper said.
The strength to impact players both positively and negatively means coaches must work to cultivate an environment where value is placed on more than just an on-field impact that appears on the stat sheet, said Morosky, who graduated in May.
“A coach’s influence goes beyond just tactical and technical aspects of the sport. They serve as role models, mentors, and sources of guidance for their players,” he said. When a coach solely focuses on a player’s field performance, “a coach’s negative behavior, harsh criticism, or lack of support can have detrimental effects on an athlete’s self-esteem and overall mental health.”
Negative experiences and associations with coaches are far too common in the collegiate world. Part of this is rooted in a misunderstanding and lack of communication that stands between the two parties.
Matthew Schner played five years of collegiate basketball. He spent his first four seasons at Division III Emory University followed by his final year at Division I Lipscomb University. Being a part of two programs, Schner now has two alumni bases to lean on.
“How connected the coaching staff is with the alumni is a big deal.”
Using the team alumni network as a bridge between the two may help in terms of reliability and understanding of one another.
A coach’s impact is never just negative, it can also be positive, like any relationship in life. Some student athletes have been fortunate enough to find a coach at the collegiate level that understands valuing the human being as well as the athlete.
Matt Schner poses before the camera at media day at Emory University
Schner was lucky enough to find two coaches who did that.
In a USA Today article titled “Mental health resources for student athletes becoming priority at colleges, journalist Paul Myberg reports that “Conferences and universities are prioritizing overall health by placing mental well-being on an equal plane with the traditional medical support provided to physical injuries, embracing the concept that conditions related to mental health should be treated with the same focus and care as an ACL tear or concussion,” in the spring of 2022
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With all the conversation around mental well-being and the resources institutions are providing for their employees to learn more, many program leaders are taking to embracing the change positively.
“My new coaches made us feel welcome and encouraged to talk about whatever we needed to. They prioritized our mental health and addressed the topic instead of tiptoeing around it,” said Notaro.
Great coaches are actively fostering a positive relationship in which the athlete feels cared for while simultaneously pushing the athlete to be the best at their game, even though at times it might not always seem that way in the athlete’s eyes.
“It is possible, but definitely a hard balance to find. I think that when a player feels appreciated and believed in by their coach, they will be at the top of their mental game which always helps with the physical game,: said Nicola Donlan, a sophomore defender at Division III lacrosse powerhouse Tufts University. “I do think that with that, a coach can push their athlete to be the best at their game when it comes out of love and their desire for collective success.”
The informal survey taken by the athletes never specified whether the coach’s impact was positive or negative. From the conversations and interviews, this yields the response that turning this number into a positive one, was dependent upon creating a relationship, and the coaches that fostered a healthy one saw positive results.
The current and former college athletes were asked what they would say to coaches in an attempt to help coaches make a more positive impact on their players’ mental health and overall lives.
Here is what some of them said.
Schner reminds coaches that, in most cases, coaches are the first friend the student athlete has when they step onto campus, and with that in mind, coaches should make more of an effort to foster a healthy relationship both in competition and away from it.