Ryan Day and Chris Holtmann are big believers in giving their players second chances, which is why the Ohio State football and men’s basketball coaches consider social media the chief culprit in creating mental-health issues among college athletes.
Social media does not excel at extending grace and forgiveness, whether the topic is sports, politics or putting ketchup on hot dogs.
College athletes, particularly those who play football and basketball, are not immune from such “Knives Out” activity. Twitter is an attack dog. Fan site message boards serve as judge, jury and executioner. Instagram builds the user’s brand, which goes bust for something as basic as dropping a pass or missing a dunk.
Holtmann ties the increase in athletes’ mental-health issues directly to the web’s downside, as he explained on Wednesday during a conference call with Day and members of Ohio State’s sports psychology staff.
“Whether it is anxiety, depression or a variety of things, for me it’s the influence of social media,” said Holtmann, adding that more players have visited his office for emotional support in the past five years than in the previous 15.
“It is greater than any other informational influence right now,” he said. “It’s what they’re feeding on consistently … in general people struggle with comparison, and social media accelerates that.”
Day agrees, pointing to the constant pressure on his players to uphold their image and status online.
“It’s hard on them but it’s important to them,” Day said. “You can tell them a million times it doesn’t matter, but it does to them.”
The easy solution is for athletes to limit their cell phone use, right? Think again, Boomer. It’s not happening. Colleges need another avenue to help athletes deal with the pressures of juggling academics, sports, social media and relationship issues.
To its credit, Ohio State is helping its student-athletes negotiate that road. Last year, the university increased its sports psychology staff from one to four. Led by Dr. Jamey Houle, the staff steps into the breach by working with athletes and coaches one-on-one as well as in groups. The overall goal is to get athletes mentally healthy, but also to help them maximize their performance potential.
It’s a chicken or egg question. Does peak performance lead to improved mental health? Or does a healthy mind lead to peak performance? Houle described it as both, but probably more the latter.
That sounds right. I knew a track athlete so consumed by performance that he forced himself to throw up before every race. Had he been able to bounce stress off a sports counselor, it might have improved his times and temperament.
“We start with what’s going on with their life and how they want to enhance their life,” Houle said. “I start with, ‘What’s on your mind?’ Because they have a lot on their mind. We want them to leave with tools that lead them to a better, fuller life.”
Excellent, but does social media really play that big of a role in the athlete who is spiraling downward? Pressure is pressure, whether it affected an athlete from 1950 or in 2020. Maybe today’s college athletes just aren’t as mentally tough as previous generations?
Halt that old-school way of thinking, Houle warned.
“The increase in pressure is real,” he said. “If you look at social media, their lives are constantly hooked in and on view for everybody,” he said. “Think about Ohio State, how if you have a bad game or good game you have folks you don’t even know commenting. And some might make personal jabs. Twenty years ago, that didn’t happen.”
It’s not only social media that is driving athletes to some level of despair and depression. Day mentioned how youth sports are more competitive than ever, and not always for the better.
“Youth sports are very different than when we grew up,” he said. “You see the pressure parents put on kids to do well at a young age.”
Day recalled playing sports in his backyard that were organized by kids, not parents. If disputes broke out, “We did a re-do,” he said.
Those do-overs have become few and far between, especially on social media, where outcry over mistakes in a game deepen an athlete’s fear of failure.
Fortunately, mental-health counseling is losing its stigma. Athletes are getting help without getting mocked. Now, if we can just get social media to play nice.