The landscape of college athletics is changing rapidly and with that comes a new level of pressure on the student-athlete. In the era of NIL and in arguably the most competitive conference in the nation, life as a student-athlete can be a heavy load to bear.
As younger generations age and bring much-needed attention to mental health, athletic departments are growing and developing their role to best serve the unique needs of their student-athletes.
Specifically on the Plains, Auburn soccer does its best to place heavy emphasis on the mental health of its student-athletes, which is where players have to be sound in both themselves and their team’s chemistry.
The team works primarily with sports psychologist Dr. Joanna Foss from the athletics department. She holds one in a pair of positions on staff that will soon expand to three, to best serve the department’s athletes across all of the sports within the university.
“We do a lot of team stuff involving her, both for the mental health aspect, but also the game aspect," said junior goalkeeper Maddie Prohaska. "Making sure that we're mentally in tune and that we're all on the same page. She also does a great job of, in those sessions.
We create a relationship enough with her that if we have to go visit her individually for our own needs, mental health needs or just to have someone to talk to that's away from a soccer environment.”
Prohaska credited the athletic department for staying up to date on all of the relevant strategies addressing the mental health of student athletes, all the way from the top to the bottom. Dr. Doug Hankes is over the sports psychologists and serves as a link between athletics and campus mental health resources. The university is working to tie the two together so that student-athletes can receive the full breadth of both services.
As the athletics calendar kicks off this fall, athletically-related activities are allowed four hours each day and a total of 20 hours in the week, but student-athletes might also need additional time for physical therapy, training on their own or sessions with a sports psychologist.
There are designated hours that the sport is allowed to take up, but there are numerous things outside of practice that are key in being prepared. Sport at this high of a level is more than just practice.
“If we're just going to do like a random Tuesday this coming fall…you wake up. We'll probably get up—I'll probably get up about 5:30 or so, to have breakfast before practice. Then we'll practice,” Prohaska said. “We have a keeper practice for an hour that starts at about 7:30 to 8:30 and then we'll have the whole team out by 8:30 and go through a practice that will go until 10:30 at the latest.”
Head coach Karen Hoppa’s team is in a unique situation this fall: one of their only available practice times is on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Instead of having a day of classes and then moving to the facility for practice, the team will have two days of early practice, where they then have to head on campus for their classes.
“One of the biggest challenges we have with soccer is with bigger roster, high academic achieving and we need the whole team together to practice,” Hoppa said. “It's not an individual sport, so scheduling practice is really difficult. And frankly, we'll sacrifice a little bit athletically to be able to do it so that they can take the classes they need for their respective majors.”
Practices are scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, but those necessary morning practices ruin what would ideally be 24 hours between practices.
“Thankfully, I don't have any classes on Tuesday, but some of our harder majors, like engineering, they'll have their three-to-five-hour labs with a class, so they'll do class all the way past dinner, until probably between five and seven, “ Prohaska said. “Then by that time, to get your eight hours for the next day, you've got to go to bed by 8:30, 9 o'clock at the latest.”
Then, for currently or previously injured players, their ability to play is determined by time with the athletic trainers, so proper treatments and physical therapy must be included in the schedule as well.
“If you are injured but you have to do rehab to stay on the field, stuff like that- that can, depending on your status, go anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple hours,” Prohaska said. “Stuff like that is really the part that people don't see. It's the little stuff, because it's the little stuff that keeps you on the field, that keeps you under the lights on a Friday night.”
For Prohaska, who is heading into her junior season, the combination of COVID-19 and the adjustment to college made the adjustment to Auburn a very extreme one.
“The biggest thing, which I think back to freshman year, is when you try and make friends it's really hard,” Prohaska said. “Because a lot of times…they don't understand the workload that you go through. So sometimes, when they're like, ‘Oh, do you want to hang out?’ It's like, ‘Oh, actually, I can't.’
Then, on top of that, coming in during the height of the pandemic in 2020, it made both the social life and the mental health even more of a struggle. As you tried to navigate not only a whole new atmosphere and environment...as a collegiate athlete, but also as a college student.”
In the height of the pandemic, the number of people in a gathering were limited, which oftentimes meant the team was stuck spending time with only its members in an effort to avoid viral spread from other students.
“We, luckily, had amazing team that had great chemistry, so that was good, but it's also an element where you were tied in so closely, you couldn't branch out,” Prohaska said. “It was that, on top of trying to learn your new environment, that made it very difficult on the mental health side. I think that's where our coaches and our psychologists did a good job, to make sure they were involved and checking in regularly.”
NCAA sports teams across the nation have spent their past two years working to be normal and also healthy with their games, and even season, on the line should a positive COVID-19 test pop up. One positive test and that exposure to the team was detrimental to everyone, so these athletes devoted a lot of energy to isolating themselves from outsiders.
The drain of isolation combined with the pressures of high-level competition can destroy the joy that once came from athletics. Players in Division I athletics as well as the SEC get the excitement of competing at a high level, but with that can come some serious strain.
“Even the people closest to you don't understand that you got into the sport because you love it. You're doing it because you want to and you're trying to have fun,” Prohaska said. “I think a lot of people don’t think that, while it is a job and you're working probably over 40 hours a week, you're doing it because you love it and you want to do it.”
Using that love, then, is what Prohaska says is important in keeping student-athletes in tune with why they play. The rise of social media has brought negativity directly into the hands of athletes by way of their phones, which forces them to reckon with the contrast between hate and the joy they find in their sport.
“When the outside brings all this pressure onto you and expects you to be perfect and expects more than the world from you, they are taking away from your love and your fun,” Prohaska said. “That's the biggest thing when it comes back to mental health, is trying to find your reason why and why you're doing it.
Because 18 years ago, this is what I wanted to do with my life. I've been wanting to play this my whole life, not for the person sitting behind a computer screen that doesn't know anything about me.”
That outside hate is something that student-athletes are going to face in the SEC, regardless of the fact that they are young adults or even still teenagers. In the age of NIL where they can monetize their sports and function more like professionals, that doesn’t change the fact that these are people entering the world of adulthood.
“I think people in the outside world forget that these are college students,” Hoppa said. “When everybody just thinks about the couple people that go pro, 99% of them are going to go pro in something other than sports as they move forward.”
With the rigorous schedule of practice, physical and mental therapy combined with classes and social life, it’s hard to comprehend what it takes to be a student and athlete at this high a level.
“The outside world, if you will, just sees the athletes perform on game day. We're in the SEC. It's a high level in every sport, and they just see that,” Hoppa said. “I think nobody realizes all that goes into that performance and the sacrifices that they make and the amount of work in the offseason, in the summer and all that goes into it.”
Hoppa has been Auburn’s head coach since 1999, and with a head coaching career spanning 29 seasons, she has learned the ins and outs of what life is like for her dozens of athletes through the years.
“I think about the bullying that goes on on Twitter for a college quarterback that makes a mistake, and death threats and things like that,” Hoppa said. “I think people forget that these are college kids and they're 18-to-22-year-olds. They're not professionals and they're not going to be perfect.”
With a career that long, Hoppa has been around to see a dramatic shift in the public’s attitude towards mental health.
“I've been in college athletics for over 30 years. It is miles better with the awareness and the support and the acceptance, but it is miles away from where it needs to be,” Hoppa said. “Albeit, we've made great strides in that mental health awareness, the support for the student athletes, and the acceptance of it.”
From a player’s perspective, Prohaska thinks the outlook is good on how student-athletes are being heard, but she also sees a disconnect in the lives of her teammates post-athletics.
“My aspirations are to never stop playing soccer, but that's not everybody's aspirations. I've talked to a lot of my teammates, a lot of my team's alumni and how they are dealing with different identity crises after soccer,” Prohaska said. “You've put years...into this sport and then what happens when it's gone? How do you react to the outside world? What's it like to have a job? Because you haven't had time to have a job.”
Former collegiate athlete Sydney Umeri founded the podcast and platform Retired College Athletes to allow other former athletes a space to reckon with the transition from student-athlete life to normal life. Prohaska sees a need for increased awareness about that major life change.
“Stuff like that actually creates really bad mental health,” Prohaska said. “Everyone's like, ‘The student-athlete, the student-athlete,’ but when they're just a normal person, that's not a student-athlete anymore. They are dealing with things that they haven't dealt with before. That kind of just gets overshadowed and not talked about.”
In a day and age where collegiate athletics is experiencing seismic upheaval, it will be important to give past, present and future student-athletes a voice of advocacy. They are the ones subjected to this change and their mental health is a primary consideration as the shifts are made on their backs of their work.
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Callie Stanford, junior in communications, is the sports editor at the Auburn Plainsman. Currently a junior, she has been with The Plainsman since January 2021.