Members of the North Central College women's soccer team share a celebration.

The Importance of Student-Athlete Mental Health

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Sep 16, 2021

The Importance of Student-Athlete Mental Health

Student-athletes have a lot on their plate. From maintaining their GPA to attending practice, training, and games, the daily life of collegiate athletes can be intense. 

When thinking about how to be a successful student athlete, it’s certainly natural for the focus to be on physical health. But, what about mental health? 

Between long days and mounting pressure, mental health often falls to the wayside for these hardworking students. Follow along as we discuss the importance of student-athlete mental health, along with some tips and tricks for maintaining balance and well-being as a student-athlete. 

Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in Student-Athletes

While there are many mental health benefits to being a student-athlete—camaraderie among players, consistent routines for students, and the stress-relief of vigorous exercise, to name a few—symptoms of poor mental health frequently go undetected or ignored. 

Additionally, there can be a stigma around discussing mental health, and even those with the deepest issues may be too uncomfortable to talk about their mental health. In recent years, however, discussions about the prevalence of mental illness have become more widespread, not only proving that mental health issues are more common than we think, but also leading more and more people to confront them for the first time.

But are mental health issues more prevalent in college student-athletes than other people? Based on the average age of a student-athlete, it’s reasonable to assume they are.

Most traditional student-athletes fall within the age bracket of 18 to 25 years old, which is where, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the highest rates (29.4%) of mental health problems are experienced. 

Between the combined stress of college classes, sporting obligations, social concerns, and overall expectations for success, it’s no surprise that these concerns are prevalent among student-athletes. 

A noteworthy study dating back to 2008 revealed that between 10-15% of college athletes experienced psychological issues. It’s important to note this statistic only reflects those who required mental health counseling, not the total number of collegiate athletes working through a mental health issue unknowingly, whether on their own or without the help of a professional. That means the actual percentage is even higher than the study showed. A rate of 10 to 15% is also about 2% higher than non-athletic college students. 

Mental health issues manifest themselves in a variety of ways with differing degrees of severity, particularly with stress.

Identifying the Signs and Symptoms of Stress in Student-Athletes

How can you tell when a collegiate student athlete, whether it is you, your friend, your child or someone you are coaching, may be experiencing increased stress? While everyone reacts differently to high-anxiety and high-pressure situations, recognizing the first indications of a mental health problem is the first step in preventing serious illness and developing strategies for support. 

Student-athletes, coaches, peers and parents should be mindful of the different ways mental illness can manifest physically, behaviorally, emotionally and cognitively. Signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • Sudden declines in performance in the athletic environment or in the classroom 
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal from friends or a lack of interest in participating in social gatherings
  • Increased muscle tension, fatigue, or frequent headaches
  • Explicit expressions about feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, or burnt-out 
  • Increased difficulty remembering information such as plays and practice schedules
  • Decreased motivation, self-esteem, or interest in sports 
  • Increased expressions of anger, irritability or sadness

There are any number of possible driving forces behind the symptoms of poor mental health: pressure to maintain a certain GPA, concerns about playing time, anxiety surrounding an injury that may be hindering performance and issues with time management are just a few of the many sources of student-athlete stress. 

Identifying the origins and paying close attention to changes in behavior and physical health will help to manage a mental health problem before it gets worse.

If you’re looking for tips on ways to reduce stress as a student athlete, read our linked blog on how to manage time as a student-athlete.

How to Prioritize Mental Health as a Student-Athlete

Student-athletes can mitigate the risks of mental health problems by finding healthy emotional outlets and mental health resources to help them succeed on and off the field.

What, exactly, does it look like for student-athletes to protect and care for their mental health? Here are a few actionable steps student-athletes can take to prioritize their mental health:

Research the specific athletic program

The first thing you can do to protect your mental health as a student-athlete comes before you ever take the field—it’s about finding the best place for you to be. While some programs are known for their increased national attention, high-stress environments, and pressure to perform, other schools focus more on the holistic health of the student-athlete. This well-rounded approach doesn’t have to be at the expense of the athletic program’s rigor either.

North Central College’s Divison III program, for example, has won 40 national team championships across multiple athletic disciplines. Here, student-athletes benefit from a competitive environment while also prioritizing mental health and a balanced schedule.

Find out more about North Central College

Keep a consistent schedule 

Between team meetings and practices, athletic travel time and classroom deadlines, it can be challenging for students to stay on top of their schedules. Keeping a certain degree of consistency each week is essential not just for managing expectations and prioritizing assignments, but also in making time for fun. It may sound obvious, but remember social outlets help minimize stress. So be sure to make time for them in your schedule.

Develop hobbies and interests outside of sports 

When sports are a student-athlete’s focus every day from sunup to sundown, it can lead to overthinking and placing undue physical demands on their body. Having an outlet such as photography, painting, or playing an instrument can help to take the focus off of whatever struggles may be causing anxiety in the athletic environment. 

Communicate with coaches about mental health concerns 

Every good coach knows It’s part of their job to lend a listening ear to their players and keep in touch with them about their level of stress. Student-athletes should bring their mental health concerns to their coaches for their own good as well as that of the team. Coaches and athletic advisors who are clued in about an athlete’s mental health struggles are better equipped to support their players on and off the field or court. 

You can even talk to your coach to see if it may be beneficial to take a competing season off. This doesn’t mean quitting your sport, but instead you can redshirt to focus on your mental health while not losing your competing eligibility. Learn more about this option at our linked blog, “What Does Redshirt Mean in College Sports?”  

Ask for support from coaches and peers (and discussing the need openly) 

Every coaching style is different and so are the needs of their players. Just as they might be transparent about their needs in an unfamiliar classroom setting, student-athletes should speak up when they could use some extra encouragement. Some coaches and peers are more intuitive about this than others, so asking for a bit more positivity—or even less constructive criticism—isn’t something student-athletes should feel shy about. 

Seek therapy if needed 

For student-athletes in need of additional support, regular therapy sessions are always an option  if necessary. Even if student-athletes seem to be handling the demands on their time well, therapy can be a useful preventative measure to help keep everything in balance. Remember it is always okay to ask for help. If you are struggling in class you talk with a professor; if an injury is giving you trouble you go to the trainer. Contacting your campus health services office to find someone to talk to is just as natural and you should feel comfortable doing it whenever you need.

Maximize your rest days and off-season

Stepping away from the realm of athletics is sometimes just what student-athletes need to come back with more motivation and a clearer headspace. That’s why taking advantage of rest days and the off-season is so important. 

Book a massage after a particularly long week of practice, spend a weekend catching up on sleep, or take the off-season to visit your family or travel with friends. These simple (but rewarding) activities can rejuvenate your body and mind, preparing you for the rest of the season ahead. 

You also don’t have to tackle your mental well-being alone. Due to increasing mental health concerns, many colleges and universities are examining their athletic programs and implementing more mental health resources to help students cope and adjust to college life. Whether you end up taking advantage of them or not, be sure to look into what resources your program offers so you know where you can go for help.

Pursue a Healthy Athletic Career at North Central College

For many students, attending a Division III school can help alleviate pressure and stress, while still giving them the chance to play the sports they love at the highest level of competition. 

Look for a  Division III school like North Central College where you’ll have flexibility in your schedule along with the training, teaching and resources you’ll need to excel. North Central student-athletes not only have time for studying, extra-curricular activities, and relaxation, they get the personal attention and support that student-athletes thrive on. North Central also carries a tradition of excellence, with 27 intercollegiate sports and an unmatched record that includes 40 team national championships as well as 142 individual and relay national championships.

The Dyson Wellness Center is a great resource for North Central students who are struggling with mental health concerns. The dedicated staff of healthcare professionals at DWC  provides experienced, dedicated help with psychological services from counseling service to general advice as well as access to general medical services.

Find out more about North Central College and start on the path to collegiate student-athlete success today.



Dyson Wellness Center. (2019). North Central College.

Kang, J. (2020). The Collegiate View: Eating Disorders and the College Athlete. O’Connor Professional Group.

Liliana Hansen, AthleteNetwork. (2017, March 10). The Prevalence of Mental Health in Student-Athletes. Athlete Network.

Martin, D. (2020, December 8). How Many Athletes Deal with Mental Health Issues. Donovan Martin. 

NIMH » Mental Illness. (2021, January 5). National Institute of Mental Health.

Zalaznick, M. (2021, June 3). Student-athletes and mental health: 5 lessons learned from COVID. University Business Magazine.