What the NCAA mental health crisis means for college golf | Golf News and Tour Information

“I think there have been two suicides since the last time we spoke.”

This is from a source that was involved in this story. It had only been two weeks since our previous conversation.

Six suicides in the past three months in NCAA athletics is the starkest evidence of the mental health crisis in college sports. Golfers, with their long difficult season and individualistic orientations, are particularly vulnerable. Covid only made it worse. How did we come here? And how do we bring these student-athletes out of obscurity?

“It’s not necessarily new,” said Will Green, head coach of the Princeton men’s golf team, whose coaching career spans 23 years. “I think the way we treat it is a bit newer than its recognition.”

College golfers face acute challenges. Their offseasons are short, and “summer vacation” usually means more competition at the state and national level. Indeed, there is never a stop button.

In season, guardrails to protect players are flimsy at best. NCAA Rule 17.1.7.1 states that “A student-athlete’s participation in athletic-related accounting activities shall be limited to a maximum of four hours per day and 20 hours per week.” Language is important here – “countable” only considers practice, competition, skill-related instruction, competition site visit, coach-initiated sports meetings, and strength and conditioning required. Even then, the calculations don’t add up: a 36-hole competition day only counts as THREE hours against the maximum of 20 hours.

And then there are the demands — expressed and unspoken, enforced by coaches, teammates, parents, social media comparisons, and the voice in every player’s head — that college golfers spend long hours working alone. on their game. “Depending on your coach, they might consider [20 hours a week] to the bare minimum,” says Calvin Sierota (underneath), a recent graduate of the Florida State men’s golf team, who spent his senior year as captain. “They want to see who is putting in that extra time.”

Speaking up isn’t always the answer either.

“[Players] are afraid to say something,” one player said. “Coaches won’t be happy if they get in trouble with their own athletes.” In April, the NCAA has concluded an investigation into the Ohio State women’s golf program, citing violations of “multi-year athletically accounting rules,” including player concerns that the practices have spilled over into class hours and tutoring. The NCAA also found that the 20-hour limit had also been repeatedly violated.

And until now, we haven’t even mentioned all the time college golfers spend in class, studying, and catching up on work they missed on long road trips. Or that many golfers only receive partial scholarships and also face financial pressure unknown to athletes in more visible sports who value full outings. Also, NONE. “I think that’s why the NCAA is so hesitant to recognize the work-life balance realities of college athletes,” says Katie Lever, author of Survive the second level, a fictional dystopia inspired by her application for the NCAA Ph.D. in Rhetoric and her time as a student-athlete. “They should admit that this idea that they’ve been pushing for years…is actually incorrect,” she adds.

Ivy Shepherd has never counted the sleepless nights or days in a row she has spent isolating herself in her bed. Why would she? She wanted everyone around her to know the outgoing and clumsy Ivy. Not the other side that was quickly taking over.

His personality was as brilliant as his golf game, or so it seemed. Going into college, Shepherd was one of the most touted recruits in Clemson history. And in her freshman season, she won all-conference honors.

Like clockwork, she reminded herself that it wasn’t enough.

“Almost every conscious hour of my day, I was focused on golf and worried about golf,” says Shepherd.

It wasn’t until Shepherd sought treatment near the end of her freshman year that she realized how much she was reducing her self-esteem to numbers on a scoreboard. Eventually, she would open up to an assistant coach and some of her teammates – something she wishes had happened sooner.

Shepherd (underneath) had suffered from “identity foreclosure,” defined by the APA as a “premature commitment to an identity: the unconditional acceptance by individuals of the roles, values, and goals that others (e.g., parents, close friends, teachers, sports coaches) have chosen for them. It’s a common trait among many top athletes, especially golfers, who often cite their earliest memories with a club in hand. Mike Clark, a sports psychologist at the University of Arizona, says graduation is when it hits student-athletes the hardest. “The question I often ask people who come to this realization is ‘When did you start playing your sport?'” Clark says. “For many, they say four years. I say, ‘Okay, so tell me about a memory you have before working out. And it’s like, blink, blink, blink, blink… they can’t find one.

This can lead golfers down a reactive path like Shepherd’s, in which mental health crises aren’t fully recognized until too late. “We wait until the house is completely on fire before we ask anyone to go for treatment,” says Bhrett McCabe, a consultant sports and performance psychologist at the University of Alabama.

This raises two questions: Am I comfortable getting help?

Findings from the NCAA found that less than half of male and female sports participants felt comfortable seeking help from their on-campus mental health providers.

At the elite level, approximately 80% of universities that participate in Power Five conferences have at least one full-time mental health professional on staff. But these caregivers find themselves increasingly overcrowded. Clark says sports psychologists in athletic departments have noticed an upward trend in people seeking support over the past two to three years. On average, he says, between individual morning sessions and between team practices, he can see more than 30 people each day.

At the middle and lower levels, including DII, DII, and NAIA, help is usually delegated to on-campus mental health providers or external referrals, which becomes an expensive and longer process than in-house help.

Having dealt with mental health issues before, Stegemann (underneath) wasn’t shy about asking for help, but his athletics department didn’t have an in-house sports psychologist. He was told to look for the counseling center on his campus. When she finally came in, she still felt the therapist couldn’t understand the challenges that student-athletes face. She chose to seek treatment outside of the university, having to bear the costs herself. “It would make a huge difference to have someone on staff who specifically deals with athletes,” Stegemann said.

The NCAA constitution obliges each member school “[facilitate] an environment that supports physical and mental health within athletics by ensuring access to appropriate resources and open engagement with regards to physical and mental health”.

A former Florida State golfer found herself struggling with depression and said it took her months before she could see a therapist. The moment she entered, the situation became so unbearable that she had already planned to enter the transfer portal. This confirms another unfortunate reality: According to the latest NCAA survey, mental health is the most common reason student-athletes consider transfers.

“If someone wanted to make that decision, who am I to decide?” says Trake Carpenter, a former DI men’s golf coach. “I’m not going to spend a lot of time judging. It’s no fun for anyone when that happens.

“It mostly comes down to the coaches,” says Kate Smith, a former golfer from Nebraska. “I just realized that their words and actions matter.”

Now, belatedly, coaches are engaging in conversation and educating themselves, with training and education resources becoming more readily available. UCLA’s Carrie Forsyth has embraced the changing mental health discourse. But Forsyth notes that the potential legal ramifications of HIPAA laws often leave coaches in a compromising position as to how much they can respond. “Even if you feel there’s a problem, you can direct your student to those resources, but it’s up to them to go to those resources,” Forsyth says. “It is sometimes very suffocating. I want to do more, I want their parents to know it, and there are only limits to that.

But the mental health of coaches also matters, especially in the context of the number of athletes who rely on them. With institutional demands increasing year by year, coaches report similar levels of burnout as their student-athletes. Compliance, Van Driver, Recruitment; the responsibilities outside of the role of “coach” only accumulate from year to year.

Tyler Bradstreet, director of clinical and sports psychology at Texas Tech University, says he also hopes to see an increase in resources for such coaches. “When you’re on a plane, there’s a reason they tell you to put your mask on before you help someone with theirs,” says Bradstreet. “I want you to take the pulse of your team’s well-being and how to support them. But first you have to be in the right place. »

Some athletes push for change to be led by their peers, whose relatability may be their greatest strength. Schools like Harvard and Princeton have adopted an internal self-help program called SAWL (Student Athletic Wellness Leaders) to facilitate the help-seeking process. Other programs like The Hidden Opponent, a national chapter-based self-help program, have expanded to more than 25 universities across the United States and are only growing year after year.

Collaborative efforts between coaches, players and mental health professionals are needed within a governing body that refuses to fully recognize its role in providing a safety net for student-athletes.

The first step? “Having more conversations in practice, having more conversations behind closed doors with the administrators,” Clark says. “Helping them really understand what’s going on, at 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, the sixth week of the semester, when someone thought, ‘Hey, I want to end my life.'”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or dial 911 in an emergency.

Michael C. Ford