Mental Health and NCAA Student-Athletes: A Review of "What Made Maddy Run"

I’ve been in the running world for a long time. I ran my first race when I was about 5 years old, competed in AAU and USA summer track throughout middle school, ran track and cross country all through high school, and then dove into the Division I running world my sophomore year of college. I have met some of the toughest, most courageous women I know in this sport and have made more friends through running than any other activity in my life.

I have come across many types of runners at different stages of my career. I’ve seen issues like eating disorders, obsessive tendencies, perfectionism, high anxiety, and other mental demons derail successful careers of athletes that I have trained with, looked up to, and competed against. A lot of the struggles that athletes face hit them during their first year at college. Life changes, the sport changes, the pressure changes, but most of the time, the athlete’s expectations increase.

I recently read Kate Fagan’s book, What Made Maddy Run, (I LOVED it) and she summed up one of the biggest struggles that NCAA freshman student-athletes face in the quote below.

“Freshman year of college, especially for those playing a sport, is like walking through an obstacle course wearing a blindfold. No context exists for how hard the workouts will be, how long they will last, what each class will be like, what events are fun, what should be avoided. There is no yin-yang, either; no understanding that one week might feel grueling, unmanageable but just hang on, because the following week will be light and easy. For someone who struggles with the unknown, freshman year of college can feel like walking a path lined with land mines---heart racing, disaster around every corner.

Now add another variable: mental health.”

Overall, Fagan’s story on Maddy felt very familiar to me. I have witnessed many of the tales that Kate retold of Maddy’s first few months as a Division I runner at an intense academic university. When I was reading the book, I felt like I knew Maddy, like I’d met her before, or at least parts of her in other athletes that I have known. I have participated in similar conversations with teammates and seen elements of this behavior play out before. Luckily, each person I knew that shared an element of Maddy’s tale was mentally healthier than Maddy. Yes, they were suffering, but not to the same extent of mental illness as Maddy. This difference in mental health is the differentiator between Maddy’s story and the story of friends that I can recall.

Oftentimes, cases that resemble Maddy’s do get better overtime through perseverance, resilience, or just toughing it out - a concept that is stressed to student-athletes. But in the rarer cases when it is mental health, are we equipped to deal with the problem?

To get on the roster of a Division I program at a top 15 academic school requires a strong, driven personality. Many of these student-athletes are addicted to progress, and when they felt like they start going the wrong direction, their world crumbles. For a lot of student-athletes, their identity is closely tied to their performance in sports, but the competition is much harder at the Division I level. Failing is hard. Additionally, in sports, “sucking it up” and “toughing it out” are part of getting to the top. Asking for help, especially mental help, is not a concept repeated to athletes as they are climbing the ranks in high school. In most cases, the reason athletes make it to Division I is because they have experienced a lot of success, something that many assume will automatically continue throughout their college careers.

In many NCAA Division I programs, there is no open door in the athletic department to talk with a professional who is trained in the mental health of student-athletes. Yes, there are coaches, but their job is to coach you, and as an athlete, I know that bringing what feels like ‘personal’ issues to coaches makes you feel like a nuisance. There are academic advisors, trainers, and administrators. All of these people can offer some form of help, but it is not their primary job or their area of expertise. There are professionals that collaborate with the athletic department, but they are not in the athletic department. A subtle, yet important difference in my opinion.

On the whole, the NCAA is doing a better job of raising awareness of mental health. Schools are trying harder to develop resilience in their athletes and are focusing on programs that offer student-athletes skills that will help them deal with the turbulent 4 or 5-year journey. However, there is still plenty of room for progress. If you have story or an idea or an experience to share, I’d love to hear it! Spreading the word, speaking out, and sharing experiences helps create positive change in this area.