No Off Switch: How SUU Student-Athletes Take Care of Body and Mind

Mental Health and sports

Mental Health and sports

Southern Utah pass rusher Bishop Jones makes his way back to the locker room after a chilly  Monday night practice. It’s 6:30 p.m. and he hasn’t been back at his apartment since he left for class this morning.

“We don’t really get an off switch. We don’t really get an off day.”

Jones has already hit the weightroom, attended a team meeting and reviewed his notes for next week’s opponent. 

He still has to take his pads off and ice any nagging ailments before he heads home. Before bed he has to read the lecture notes of the classes he missed while traveling on Friday, knock out a few assignments and carve out some time to eat dinner.

“It’s never ending,” Jones said. “You’re on a plane, then a bus. You’re trying to focus on the game plan and the scheme, all while thinking about the assignment that’s due on Monday.”

With so much on their plates, how much can student-athletes like Jones manage to sleep each night?

“Not a lot. Not as much as I should. Maybe six hours a night, if I’m lucky.”

Earlier this year in his expose, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes highlighted the impact of sleep deprivation in the NBA, and the quotes from pros are jarring.

Philadelphia 76er Tobias Harris told Holmes, “I think in a couple years [sleep deprivation] will be an issue that’s talked about, like the NFL with concussions.”

The physical toll of high-level athletics combined with a lack of necessary recovery challenges many athletes’ brains. 

Professionals can afford snazzy gadgets and focus all of their time on ensuring high level performance. Student-athletes on the other hand, have to manage school, social endeavors and the rest of the rigors of university life without heart rate monitors and hyperbaric chambers. It impacts their bodies, but it can also shake their mental fortitude.

No student-athlete is more conscious of that battle than Manny Berz, a kicker on SUU’s football team. For Berz, years of preparation leads into every kick. He’s spent hours memorizing the mechanics of a good approach, walking through the steps in his head and booting the ball into a net on the sideline.

Then it all comes down to when he trots onto the field with the game on the line. 

“You know there’s going to be people in the stands,” Berz said. “You know there is going to be pressure. That’s what all the preparation is for, so that when you go out there it’s just muscle memory.”

Berz visualizes the ball sailing through the uprights before each kick, but sometimes it doesn’t go how he imagines it. 

“[Missing] is one of the worst feelings,” Berz said. “You kick thousands of reps, and it all comes down to one or two reps. The kicking game is really black and white. You either have a good game or a bad game.”

It’s a dangerous mental exercise, and Berz has to do everything he can to leave his misses behind him. He knows that if he takes his mistakes on the field home with him, he won’t be able to function anymore.

Berz, like many student-athletes, has to keep a short memory, and at times has to block out time for himself to reaffirm his confidence. The pressure can be overwhelming.

Fortunately, coaches are also growing more conscious of the mental aspect of athletics.

“You have to focus on the things you can control and not worry about the things you can’t,” SUU football coach Demario Warren said. “That’s becoming more difficult.”

Warren sets the example for his players by running each day. He has to remind himself to not think about football during those runs.

Another roadblock for student-athletes comes in the form of travel. The Big Sky conference houses universities throughout the west, which often means long and sometimes sleepless flights and bus rides.

Teams that play two or three times a week cover a lot of ground. SUU volleyball will travel around 13,000 miles this season. That’s enough to go halfway around the globe, and they do it in 14 weeks, all while taking classes.

SUU student-athletes aren’t exactly taking chartered flights either. Losing so much time on the road makes life difficult coming back home, especially if they need to prioritize physical recovery.

Injury can completely derail the psyche of a person, and for athletes whose identity has been closely connected to their athletic abilities, missing time can send players spiraling.

Coaches often preach a familial atmosphere because players go through so much together. The joy of a great win and the pain that comes with loss unifies the team. Watching your family battle from the sidelines with a boot on your foot can have the opposite effect.

With all of these weights pulling on the student-athletes, they have to adapt and create effective coping strategies.

Organization is key for track and field runner Linnea Saltz. She uses a color-coded planner to squeeze every productive second she can out of the day. Saltz spends the time she saves on sleep.

“I am not myself if I’m not running off eight hours of sleep,” Saltz said. “I know a lot of athletes aren’t able to do that, and it does affect performance.”

Saltz did not arrive at SUU with those skills. An injury her sophomore year flooded her mind with doubts. She worried about getting back on the track and wondered if she’d ever be good enough to compete again.

“[Mental health] was something I never thought I was going to struggle with, until last year. I was getting down on myself in practices. I wasn’t happy with how I was performing, and then it started affecting different aspects of my life.”

She turned to a sports psychologist, and her academic and athletic performance slowly crawled back to normal.

“My life was crumbling around me. I had to learn to cope and control myself mentally.”

She came out of that trial armed with strategies to combat anxiety. Before track meets she uses breathing exercises and positive self-talk to settle her nerves.

Coach Warren turns to a short run to relieve stress, but also stresses gratitude.

“You cannot be grateful and unhappy at the same time,” Warren said. “If you can have an appreciative attitude during the hard times, then you will have one when you get the things you want. If you are ungrateful, you will be ungrateful no matter what you accomplish.”

As the discourse surrounding mental health has evolved, much of the “macho-man, rub some dirt on it” attitude has drifted away. Coaches and athletes understand the need to care for the mind with the same fervor as the body.

Just like Bishop Jones dipping into an ice bath after a hard practice, human beings need to consciously care for their minds and invest time in understanding who they are. It’s a process that we all must undertake, especially for student-athletes.

Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of Mitchell Quartz and SUU Athletics