Why I care about mental health for student-athletes
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Hi, I’m Christina, co-founder of MyHuddle, a mission-driven startup working to make mental support accessible to every student-athlete. For me, MyHuddle is more than a company - it’s a personal mission inspired by my own experience as a student-athlete.
For most of my life, soccer defined who I was. I started playing at age 5 and fell in love with the game. As a shy girl, the soccer field was where I came alive - challenging for tackles, outrunning my opponents, and scoring goals. By high school, I was playing soccer nearly every day and my performance started catching the attention of college recruits. I got recruited to play D1 soccer in college where I was a leading scorer and helped my team win back-to-back league championships my junior and senior year.
But if you only look at my accolades, you’d miss the full picture. The personal sacrifices, the injuries, the grueling schedule, the exhaustion, and the emotional ups and downs. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat - soccer provided me with incredible opportunities, invaluable friendships, and life lessons that make me who I am today. But looking back, the pressures and demands of being a competitive student-athlete were often a lot to handle as a teenager and young adult.
As I’ve talked to more athletes, it’s become clear that many feel similarly. In fact, today, 40% of NCAA athletes report feeling extremely overwhelmed constantly or most every day.1,2 Change is certainly needed to reduce the pressure put on young athletes, but I also now realize that a key piece of support for student-athletes has been missing for decades: mental support.
"A key piece of support for student-athletes has been missing for athletes for decades."
So the question is why? Why is mental health not treated the same way as physical health in sports? It's the norm for athletes to work with strength coaches, athletic trainers, and physical therapists, but sport psychology is still seen as ancillary and only needed if there’s “something wrong with you.” From my research and conversations with hundreds of athletes, coaches, parents, and sports leaders, it comes down to three key barriers: stigma, misconceptions, and cost.
First, it's hard for athletes to seek out help. While the conversation is starting to shift as celebrity athletes like Michael Phelps and Kevin Love open up about their mental health challenges, we still have a sports culture where “throw some dirt on it” and “grind it out” is glorified. As a result, athletes are less likely than their non-athlete peers to report issues with mental health (NCAA).
Second, sport psychology is still a relatively nascent field so many of us don't really understand what it is or how it works. If you were like me growing up, you might think sport psych is "all fluff" and "just some visualization exercises." In reality, it's a discipline rooted in practices found also in counseling, life coaching, and leadership training. Multiple studies show that the mind is intrinsically connected to athletic performance (1,2,3,4) and the world’s top athletes - from Michael Jordan to Kerri Walsh Jennings to Tom Brady -- all work with sport psych coaches.
Last but not least, there's the cost. Very few schools can afford to have a sport psychology professional on staff. Several years ago, the NCAA's Chief Medical Officer made mental health its #1 health priority. Top tier D1 colleges with larger budgets are making progress, but most athletic departments can't fund this role and at best 1 in 4 have a sport psych on-staff. At the high school and club levels, it’s extremely rare. As a result, individuals and families often have to foot the bill, but with sport psychology running at $200-$300+ per hour, it's a service out of reach for most athletes.
"We can no longer afford to let stigma and cost prevent student-athletes from getting the mental support they deserve."
We can no longer afford to let stigma and cost prevent student-athletes from getting the mental support they deserve. Our society is facing a mental health crisis: 1 in 4 people suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. Young athletes are not immune. In fact, with COVID, rates of mental health concerns amongst college student-athletes are 1.5-2X higher than average (NCAA). Rather than waiting for crisis moments, we need to create a culture that thinks of an athlete’s mind just like any muscle - one that gets actively cared for and strengthened so the athlete is prepared to tackle the mental challenges he/she will inevitably face in sport and in life.
That’s why I’m building the first tech-enable mental health service designed for student-athletes. Having worked the past 10 years in tech, I've seen the power of technology to make services radically more accessible. Now, I’m using this experience to create the service I wish I had as a student-athlete: instead of in-person appointments, it’s right on your phone; instead of complexity on who to go see, it’s vetted sport psychology coaches you can trust; instead of cost prohibitive prices, it’s a service committed to affordability. Co-founded with my husband and sports orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Curtis VandenBerg, we named our service MyHuddle inspired by the vision of every athlete having their own “huddle” to reflect, strategize, and craft a game plan for success.
But we know we can’t do this alone. If we’re going to move the needle, we need to demystify and destigmatize what mental health means in sports. So if you’re a student-athlete, the parent of an athlete, coach, sports administrator, athletic trainer, physical therapist, sports medicine doctor, sport psychologist, school counselor, professional athlete, or anyone who believes that every student-athletes should have better access to mental support...we need you.
Here are three easy ways you can get involved right now:
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Now more than ever, as student-athletes continue to grapple with sport cancellations and continued uncertainty, I feel called to our mission. Thank you for being here with us on our mission to make mental support accessible to every student-athlete.
Christina Hagner VandenBerg