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The Hidden Cost of Division I Athletics


Being a Division I athlete is no easy task.

That workload can certainly put stress on an athlete and can cause many mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, which can further lead them to having a low quality of life and self harm.

This is why the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and universities nationwide are working to provide mental health resources to athletes in order to help combat a recent increase in loss of student-athletes by suicide.

Over the weeks, Seawanhaka has had the opportunity to sit down and talk to several student athletes at LIU to get their perspectives about the cost of being a D1 athlete. Additionally, athletes were able to review the quality of these resources.

Camille Watson, a senior who is currently the captain of the women’s track and field team, sat down with Seawanhaka to talk about her experience with mental health and how she balances her schoolwork and athletic career.

Watson credited the use of a planner with helping to organize her life. She claimed that it makes it easier to remember when assignments are due and which days she has tests or quizzes.

Members of the LIU Athletics program speak out about the toll of Division I athletics. (Photo: Camille Watson via LIU Athletics)

One suggestion that Watson made was utilizing Google Calendar.

“I started using Google Calendar to block out all my time and put all my classes in,” Watson said. “So having a visual aid to plan out the weeks.”

Alessandra Pastor, another athlete on the Women’s Track and Field team, noted that feeling overwhelmed can definitely take a toll on an athlete’s mental health.

“It was a lot to take in and overwhelming in a lot of aspects, the amount of work we had and balancing that with going to practice everyday for 2 hours [was overwhelming],” said Pastor.

Lekh Desai, yet another Track and Field international student from India added to the conversation, highlighting how common it is for athletes to feel overwhelmed.

“It can get hectic at times, but as long as you have some sort of time management and focus you can get through it,” said Desai.

He encourages current student athletes to push forward and don’t let the overwhelming moments become the reasons they quit their sport.

When asked if being an athlete affects them or leads to developing mental health problems such as stress and depression, Watson agreed that being an athlete can severely take a toll on a student’s mental health.

Watson described it as frightening, as due to how common these issues are, it can go unnoticed when a student athlete is suffering.

She recommended reaching out to a non-profit organization called Hidden Opponent which has a chapter both on the LIU Brooklyn campus and the Post campus.

“I’m the Vice President of the Hidden Opponent, a non-profit mental health organization for student athletes. It was created by a Division I volleyball player in South Carolina. It was scary because there were a lot of student athletes committing suicide and they were calling it an epidemic, like, ‘Whats going on?’ Week after week, all over the nation,” said Watson.

The Hidden Opponent advocates for student athletes’ mental health and addresses the stigma around this seemingly difficult conversation within the athletic community. The goal for them is to shed light and bring exposure to many issues that student athletes struggle with and share their experiences.

“I wouldn’t say it causes mental health problems, but it definitely does stress you out,” said Giomar Collazo, the captain of the Men’s Volleyball team told Seawanhaka. “We’re always trying to perform at such a high level that it does become stressful at times, but I wouldn’t say it promotes mental health issues. It just takes a toll on you.”

Munir Aldabagh, the current newest member of the Fencing team also stated that so far since joining the team he feels that it can definitely cause stress.

“It adds a lot of goals and targets on top of the reason why we all are going to college, which is to go out into the world and get a career. I think all athletes experience some sort of stress.” Aldabagh said.

Pastor provided a different point of view: Instead of her sport causing stress, it has actually become a stress reliever from any problems she may be experiencing in her personal life.

“It's done the opposite in fact. I feel that in my experience, all the problems that did cause me stress, such as family problems or relationship problems, once I went to track and practiced, those were the moments where I was sort of relieved and my stress did go away.”

Pastor’s view was echoed by Desai, who agreed that sports was an outlet to escape his problems.

Pastor further said “There is also the idea of putting pressure on yourself to do good or achieve a specific time, but my coach was really supportive about that. He always put our mental health first before that. He always said that Track and Field was an outlet, and to treat it more as something you love and your passion instead of putting pressure on yourself.”

Desai agreed, further adding on “If you just stay in a good mindset, keep your cool and just go with the process, you won’t feel as much stress being put onto yourself.”

Due to all stress that may come with being an athlete, they have to have some sort of coping method to deal with the overwhelming pressure.

For Watson, she goes to therapy and encourages anyone who needs help to also seek out therapy as a safe way to express your feelings.

“ I was in therapy at LIU with psych services for a little more than a year. I don’t push therapy onto people because you also have to make the active and conscious choice by yourself to do that. It doesn’t even have to be a therapist, it could be a close trusted friend, or your coach because I’m very open with them. And it doesn’t mean throwing all the weight of your stress onto them because that's not fair to them. Joining organizations like the Hidden Opponent where it’s a bunch of student athletes who feel the exact same way and you have a safe space (could be beneficial).”

Pastor, along with freshman fencer Richard Chen, both use their sports as a way to destress and escape from the world for a moment.

Chen called it his “Ultimate stress-reliever after a long day of doing work.”

Collazo spends his free time scrolling through social media or going to the gym to do extra work.

“It’s a way of escaping reality for me. Going to the gym allows me to clear my mind about anything I may be thinking about that went bad for me either today or this week.”

When asked if a student who wanted to walk on and join a team could do it, despite all the negatives that being athletes seemingly adds on top of being a college student, all of them agreed that almost anyone who wanted to walk onto a team could definitely do it, they would just have to be prepared for practices and take criticism to become a better athlete.

Collazo said, “The implications of being a division 1 athlete isn’t necessarily just skill. It means taking on the little things. I stress this a lot, especially with my teammates. We have to be the ones that clean everything up and help the community. Discipline is also very important, so if you’re disciplined and you really care about the sport, I believe you have a good chance of joining any team that you choose to be in. I believe that it’s just a lot about being open minded and taking in criticism and accepting that you're currently in the learning process, so it will be a bit of a learning curve.”

Aldabagh had an interesting take, stating that it could be difficult for some students who may not be in the athletic scene as much.

“As D1 athletes, people expect a lot from you. Your team expects a lot from you because there is such a high standard. So it could be a little difficult for some who aren’t used to that.”

Considering Aldabagh is new to his sport and the sports scene in general, he is an example of how any student could be able to join a sports team despite the learning curve and early morning practices that come with it

The NCAA is another nonprofit organization that regulates student athletics nationwide in the United States. Part of regulating teams around the Nation is also taking care of their athletes and making sure they provide enough mental health resources to support them in hard and stressful times.

Watson doesn’t agree and feels as though they could do more to help them and future athletes.

“I wouldn’t say the NCAA is doing as much as they could do. Even though we have resources on campus, in my mind, if there is such an epidemic going on with student athletes killing themselves, I feel like they have to provide more resources when it comes to sports psych. They make so much money, so how hard would it be to add one extra person to every school? They all should have a psych center. How hard could it be to add a little extra money to make sure we have a sports psychologist, who really understands what athletes are going through?”

Pastor also agreed, continuing the conversation with “Big organizations like the NCAA tend to not have enough focus on how student athletes are feeling or with their mental health issues.”

Collazo described their help as more of an indirect rather than them focusing on each athlete’s well-being. It’s more of a diagram of some sorts to help athletes get the resources they need.

“They could definitely provide more. There’s always room for improvement, such as doing a better job of making mental resources more accessible at schools if an athlete is feeling down. But it’s also part of the team, coaching staff and trainers to reach out to that person and help them. It’s our responsibility as well to help each other out and just say “We got this. We’ll go through this together.”

Going beyond the NCAA, Seawanhaka asked how LIU could do better, or if LIU provides enough resources for their athletes.

Chen, Aldabagh, and Desai agreed that the on campus resources were great at helping athletes in their hard times.

“Where I come from, India, people don’t really care about mental health. No one talks about it, and even though it’s being talked about more today, it’s talked about less in sports and it’s a really big issue.” Desai noted in his response.

Watson and Pastor both agreed however that LIU could do better promoting their resources to the athletes on their campus. Watson said they could be a little more proactive on the campus.

Pastor actually didn’t know that the campus had mental health resources. “I don’t see it advertised as much as it should be. I don’t know if there’s an actual organization for mental health in sports and that's actually a problem because I think we should be told before we come here, ‘Here’s a place you can go to if you need help or are feeling any kind of stress.’ They should focus more on doing that and providing resources and make it more well known.”

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