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Student-Athletes’ Mental Health and Well-Being Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Over the past few weeks, several reports on high school and collegiate athletes’ mental health and well-being were released. I have summarized some of the key results here for coaches, administrators, parents, teachers/professors, and peers who interact with student-athletes to be aware of these mental health issues and potentially intervene.

Research Report Summaries

UW School of Medicine and Public Health

  • 3,243 high school athletes in Wisconsin participated in May 2020.
  • Rates of depressive symptoms experienced were on average 3.5 times higher than in normal times.
  • About 2 in 3 athletes reported depressive symptoms, and a similar rate reported anxiety symptoms.
  • About 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 athletes reported moderate to severe symptoms in depression and anxiety, respectively.
  • There was a 50% decrease in physical activity and a 14% decrease in health-related quality of life.

NCAA Research

  • 37,658 NCAA Div I-III athletes participated in April 2020.
  • Rates of mental health concern experienced were on average 1.5-2.5 times higher than in normal times and were higher in female athletes.
  • About 1 in 3 athletes reported sleep difficulties; 1 in 4 feeling sad and a sense of loss; and 1 in 12 feeling so depressed that it had been difficult to function.
  • Athletes who were male, international, or without athletic aids expressed the most uncertainly about returning to the team.

UNT Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence

  • Approximately 6,000 NCAA Div I-III athletes participated between April and May 2020.
  • Most athletes, more so for female, experienced moderate or subclinical level of depressive symptoms, distress, and life dissatisfaction.
  • About 1 in 6 athletes reported sleep disturbances; 1 in 5 feeling depressed; and 1 in 7 feeling dissatisfied with life.
  • Only 1 in 3 athletes who engaged in counseling prior to the pandemic could continue after the shutdown of sports. Only 2% started counseling since the beginning of pandemic.

Three basic psychological needs for promoting athletes' mental health and well-being

Here are some additional data related to NCAA student-athletes’ desired resources:

In terms of resources specific to their training and physical well-being, participants indicated they would generally look to coaches as their primary source for information. They would also turn to coaches to help maintain social connections (most likely among their teammates). Many reported they would look to their athletics department in terms of academic support (highest in Division I), career planning and financial assistance resources.

What can coaches and administrators do to help student-athletes with mental health and well-being?

Based on these data and athlete responses, the pandemic is a time during which coaches and administrators should really prioritize mental health and well-being through social connections. Reaching out to sport psychologists or mental health professionals is crucial before addressing any mental health challenges.

In the meantime, coaches and administrators can find ways to keep student-athletes engaged and socially connected. According to self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000), fostering athletes’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness, as explained in the infographic, is essential to maintaining athletes’ motivation as well as mental health and well-being (Chu & Zhang, 2019). While we are hoping that high school and collegiate sports will come back soon, please stay safe and do our part to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.


Dr. Alan Chu

Dr. Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu is an Assistant Professor and the Chair of the M.S. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology (SEPP) Program at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. His primary areas of expertise are psychosocial aspects of sport and coaching. Recognized as a Self-Determination Theory International Scholar, Dr. Chu conducts both quantitative and qualitative research focused on the roles of social agents (e.g., coaches, peers, and parents) and basic psychological needs (i.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness) in motivational processes. Dr. Chu is also a sport psychology consultant who works with athletes and coaches, from high school to professional levels across sports, on mental skills training including goal setting and visualization. To practice what he preaches, Dr. Chu is physically active and highly involved in sports, specializing in table tennis (not the basement “ping pong”!) as a competitive player and an internationally certified coach. He currently serves on the Coaching Committee of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association and teaches the coaching certification course.

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