A look into the mental health of student athletes

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Matthew Seitz was introduced into the sports world at a young age. He grew up with a father who played Division 1 basketball and an uncle who was an athletic director.

In high school, Seitz was on the swim, golf, basketball and baseball teams. He never played sports in college.

“I was a four-sport high school athlete, a jack of all trades, a master of none,” the now licensed psychologist said.

In 2019, Seitz started a private practice in Gainesville where he now works with athletes ranging from the high school to Olympic levels.

“Student athletes, in general, are much less likely to open up to a therapist then the general population,” Seitz said.

One in three college students live with mental health issues, according to Athletes for Hope. Of the college students living with mental issues, it is believed that about 30% seek help, whereas only 10% of college athletes who are dealing with a mental health issue are believed to seek help.

Athletes deal with a variety of pressures in and out of their sports. One of the biggest is injuries.

Leonardo Garcia, a junior and diver at the University of Florida, experienced a back injury that took him out of a year of competition.

“It divided my career in two,” Garcia said. “My career of diving before the injury and my career of diving after the injury.”

Junior University of Florida diver Leonardo Garcia poses for a headshot. (Courtesy of Leonardo Garcia)

Garcia said doctors told him to stop diving. He was given no solution to his reoccurring back pain but learned to overcome it.

“That’s the hardest thing for me to overcome,” Garcia said.

Seitz said athletes often struggle when they can no longer perform as they once did.

“That’s all you have done your whole life,” Seitz said. “When that’s taken away from you there is no doubt that’s one of the number of causes I see of chronical mental health.”

Seitz said good mental health is essential to an athlete’s success.

“When coach is benching me, when I am not running well, when I am injured, that totally effects mental health off the field and the court no question about it,” Seitz said.

Roughly 90% of student athletes will experience a sport-related injury in their career, according to At Your Own Risk. About half of the athletes Seitz works with are dealing with overcoming a current injury or the fear of becoming injured again, he said.

That was the case for Garcia.

“I don’t see it only as something bad that has happened to me but as something that has taught me a lot of things,” Garcia said.

Nearly three years later, Garcia still is afraid of re-injury. He says he has adopted a new “humbler” lifestyle and has learned a lot from his injury.

Seitz said an athlete’s response to a setback can often make them a better athlete.

“I think you can actually use those emotions to improve your performance,” Seitz said. “It can either help you are hurt you depending on how you channel that.”

Kate Drummond smiles with a trophy she won competing in cross country. (Courtesy of Kate Drummond)

Seitz works with athletes who struggle with everything from major injury to low self-esteem to chronic depression. Although he doesn’t believe that athletes can truly keep their athlete life separate from their normal life, he does believe there are ways to not allow emotions to overcome performance.

Junior cross country and track runner at Buchholz High School, Kate Drummond, has dealt with injury and hardships since she began running 6 years ago. She said she was afraid of  re-injury and is hard on herself after a bad race.

“When I do bad, it is a little rough,” Drummond said. “I kind of just hold up for a little bit.”

However, Drummond reminds herself that her life as an athlete is so much more than one bad day.

“I know I was given a talent to do this,” Drummond said. “I know that I have put in like 6 years of work on it so why would I waste it just because I had one day?”

Drummond’s self-talk is a huge part of what Seitz describes as error resetting. It is the process in which athletes can recovery from failure in a way that only they can do for themselves.

“Error resetting is after you have had a bad race, after you made a bogey, after you struck out; how do I bounce back?” Seitz said.

For some athletes, this reset is essential, Seitz said.

“Trust the process and not focus on the outcome,” Seitz said. “It is annoying, but it is true. You have to not tie your confidence in how you just did in the last performance.”

About Chloe Hyde

Chloe is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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