The Mental Game: Additional Pressures

In my years working with student-athletes on college campuses, I have frequently been told that being a student-athlete is one of the most rewarding, and most challenging, parts of college for students. Throughout my most recent study which involved Division III men’s volleyball players, there emerged a common theme that these men felt a number of additional pressures due to their status as student-athletes. Every single participant in my study noted numerous expectations they dealt with that their non-student-athlete counterparts may not have. These pressures included the need to perform well academically, pressure to be seen as a “good guy” by peers and campus administrators, pressure to always be representing their team, and added pressures around consuming alcohol, partying, and relationships. These pressures were prevalent in all the interviews I did with my student-athlete participants, and they matched much of what I have heard while mentoring and working with student-athletes over the years. 

When I talked further with the participants in my study, I asked them what they believed the root of these additional pressure might be for them and there were two prominent answers that I received: the pressure to be perceived as more masculine or “manly” than their non-student-athlete counterparts and the pressure to always be their best because they felt they were always being watched by their coaches and the rest of the student body. Specifically, the participants in my study mirrored a common theme I have seen over the years and that is that student-athlete men feel the need to fit into the mold of the “stereotypical college man”, but also have more eyes watching them and more to lose than others on campus. I want to walk you through some of the examples that were given to me throughout my study and share some experiences that current Division III men’s volleyball players have experienced in their lives. 

Pressure to Perform Well Academically

One of the most surprising outcomes of my study was that all of the men who participated spoke to feeling a sense of pressure to perform well in the classroom, but also tied academic success to their perception of what it meant to “be a man”. Most literature on college men and student-athletes has shown that men are less focused on their academics than their female counterparts and studies often show that men view being “smart” or “academically strong” as the opposite of “being a man”. The men who I interviewed all said the exact opposite. Why might that be? I am not sure, but I wonder if being a student-athlete and being on a Division III campus (usually a smaller to mid-size school) changes the perception of academic success as it pertains to masculinity. One student-athlete told me, “I think being DIII, it’s a little bit different because we’re not here on scholarship, and have more time to devote to studies, so I think it’s more of a priority to be academically smart, it’s a positive thing that can play into being a man”. This student clearly tied his position at a Division III school to why he felt more pressure to perform well academically. 

Another participant connected why he feels the need to perform well in the classroom to how his peers would view him if he did not. He told me, “If you were a dumb jock in high school, people viewed you as a boy, like you’re more boyish, not really manly-ish. In college, if you aren’t doing good in school, girls and other guys are going be like “you are less of a man than me, because I’m doing good in school”. So, I think the better you do in school, the more manly people will view you”. He personally felt that other people on campus, student-athletes and non-student-athletes, would think of him as less of a man if he did not have his academics in line. This very much aligns with what I have heard over the years when working with student-athlete men who are struggling in classes. They often feel that they are looked down upon by their teammates and seen as a liability by their coaches. They also often feel like they are less desirable by whoever they are seeking attention from if they are struggling in classes. 

One last example of the pressure to perform well academically came from a senior in my study who shared that he felt a lot of pressure from the non-student-athletes in his classes to act a certain way solely because he was a known student-athlete on campus. He said, “being a student-athlete in the classroom, from an outside perspective, I feel like there’s the random people in my class, I feel like they look at me like ‘that’s a student- athlete, so he’s got to act a certain way’, and whether I care to act that way or not is up to me, but I definitely feel that pressure. I will admit, I do think I’m a man because I play a sport, I’m athletic, and I have pretty decent grades, [because that] shows I’m reliable”. This student felt the need to perform well in group projects, present well in classes, and be the first to initiate contact with classmates so that he wasn’t seen as the “dumb jock” archetype that much of the media portrays college athletes to be. 

Pressure to be Seen as the “Good Guy”

Many of the men I have worked alongside over the years, and the participants in my study, expressed feeling a daily pressure that they had to always be perceived as a “good guy” on campus by their peers, their faculty members, and other administrators. These men often talked about how everyone knew their business and that they felt like that couldn’t make a mistake without everyone knowing. This is likely attributed to most Division III schools being smaller-to-mid-sized institutions and student-athletes being more well-known in social circles on campus, but regardless of the reason, this was a regularly noted pressure. One specific participant in my study said, “everybody’s always on your case as an athlete. So, granted, it’s only DIII, but going to a smaller school, everybody knows your business, so basically if you sleep with somebody, most people are going to find out within a week”. This is just one clear example of how many student-athletes feel as though their personal business becomes public knowledge due to their student-athlete status. 

Another aspect of the pressure to be a “good guy” is a stress that is created by your team, your coaches, and your captains. This is the pressure to be a good guy due to the team having a reputation that needs to be upheld in which players are good men, good students, and good athletes. This frequently happens in winning or top-ranked programs but can happen at any level depending on the team’s campus reputation. One captain from a highly-ranked team said, “We have this thing, we talk about it sometimes [as a team], but it’s almost just an unwritten rule that we want to be [seen as] the best team on campus or like ‘you see how those guys are acting, let’s not act like that; let’s be better’. We can get things by just being nice respectful human beings.” This captain knew that as new players joined the team, they were conditioned to do everything they could to be liked by others on a variety of levels. In other conversations with this captain, he mentioned multiple times that when younger guys join the team and begin to stray from the good reputation of the team, it is the older guys’ responsibility to correct the issue and maintain the legacy and reputation of the team. This leads well into the next pressure of always feeling like you must represent your team. 

Pressure to Always Represent Your Team

Many student-athletes have told me that they feel a pressure to not only make decisions for themselves, but that they are always considering the implications of their team in many of the choices they make. From how they are viewed by others, what they say in public, and even how they act on the court, many student-athlete men with whom I have met tell me that they go through a back-and-forth of feeling like an individual, but also, feeling like their individualism is lost to the larger team reputation. 

Another young man in my study, who also serves as his team’s captain told me, “specifically, to me, being the captain of the team, I think there is more pressure on me; like if I’m having a bad day, like I’m quiet or something, teammates notice and teammates recognize… me and my other fellow captain, [we] are kind of the two people that get looked up to the most at this point, and I feel like if we’re in a game or practice and people see either of us freaking out, it’s more likely that the whole team will freak out, so me and him kind of have to mask our emotions, even if we are upset or pissed off, we kind of push that aside and just show that we are good at all times.” The pressure to always make yourself look as though you are “doing good”, on and off the court, in order to instill faith and confidence in your teammates is clearly as added pressure that non-student-athletes do not experience. 

Another participant talked about his feeling of having lots of people watching him and therefore having to be better than his peers since everything he did represented his team. He told me, “I think being a student-athlete, it kind of puts me on a higher pedestal, in a way where I have more responsibilities. I have more eyes watching me than normal. So, I have to be that positive example, be that that role model in a way for others to see. You have to go above and beyond the regular student.” The pressures to perform better in the classroom, be constantly perceived as a nice guy, mask emotions to not influence others, and more are additional pressures felt by student-athlete men and especially those from respected programs on their campuses. 

Pressures Around Consuming Alcohol, Partying, and Relationships

College is a time that many students, athletes or not, push the boundaries and explore aspects of their lives involving alcohol, partying, and relationships. Almost every participant in my study, and the multitude of men who I have worked alongside over the years, have spoken to additional pressure they felt to drink, party, and engage in promiscuous sexual activity as a way of proving their masculinity or solidifying their social location on campus. Since Frog Jump is a family friendly site, I am going to leave out a lot of the intimate details/stories in this section, but I want to share two specific examples that a couple of participants noted. One player very clearly talked about how being a student-athlete, he felt a lot more pressure to participate in activities involving substances, partying, etc. and that the pressure was far worse in his first two years and balanced out in his latter two years on his team. He told me, “I think it was at one point, like freshman/sophomore year, just something to do, a social thing, like, you get drunk. And now it’s more of a thing to do for enjoyment, like you have [a few drinks] with your friends. Being on a sports team in college and having majority of the people drink, smoke, vape, whatever, you’re definitely more pressured.”. 

Another player spoke about his mistakes with relationships and how they impacted his reputation on campus. He said, “I guess being a [student-athlete] man is actually a lot harder than you think because if you allow yourself to fall into the ideas of what a man is supposed to look like, you actually get looked down upon. So, a lot of my time in college, I spent being a player or a serial dater. I think that’s part of what people think being a man is, yet in reality, I got frowned upon for it.” This participant told stories about how he thought what was expected of him was to “get with” a lot of partners in college, but that actually backfired on him and took his focus away from his sport, from his academics, and ended up negatively impacting how he was viewed by all others on campus. 

What Does This All Mean?

Throughout my research and my years working with student-athletes, I have confirmed my assumption that student-athlete men often feel an immense amount of additional pressures due to their student-athlete status, but are never truly equipped in how to handle them. In the past decade of working with collegiate men’s volleyball players, I have learned that they often have a higher sense of pressure to be seen as a good guy, to represent their team, and to perform well academically than other players from different sports. This likely leads to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions that far too often go unaddressed. I have heard about many players leaving teams this year, from all conferences, due to mental health struggles, leaving to figure themselves out, or being removed from teams for destructive decisions that were likely due to untreated mental health issues. 

Teams should have open and honest conversations about their struggles, on and off the court, and coaches should collaborate with professionals who know how to best serve their players going through these issues. Transitioning to college, being a student-athlete, and figuring out how to be an adult man all bring unique challenges that are often overwhelming and crushing to young men. If players can address these early, talk about them frequently, and receive the help they need to learn healthy coping mechanisms, we might not lose great players due to personal struggles and we might honestly save someone’s life. 

Players/Captains, I would encourage you to set up a meeting with your coach to create a plan to begin discussing and addressing mental stresses that players on your team are feeling. Stop allowing things such as “that’s their problem” and “I don’t want to get involved and overstep” be the reasons YOU allow one of your brothers/teammates to suffer in silence. Teams that take care of each other and reach a healthy level of mental stability will always play better together on the court. This is a key factor of a winning team.

Coaches, work with your colleagues on campus in your institution’s health/counseling center, talk to your Athletic Director about finding funds for a therapist or sports psychologist to work with your team leading group discussions, or create collaborations with your student affairs staff to lead conversations with your team to build leadership capacity, create a system of open and honest communication, and allow your players to confide in someone that does not control their playing time and future on the team. That power dynamic alone may stop your players from being as honest as they would like.

In my next article, I am going to be talking about leadership capacity building on teams, the different ways in which teams can grow together and build a healthy bond, and how important team communication and accountability is to creating a successful culture. Having talented players on your team is a great way to win games, but also having a healthy team culture and strong mental game is what makes a program truly great.

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