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Liv McMillan '24 wearing green tape for mental health awareness while playing soccer for Haverford's Women's Varsity Soccer team. Photo courtesy of Liv McMillan.

OPINION: A New Ball Game: Mental Health Advocacy and Its Emerging Demand Within College Athletics

Success is a fundamental driver of both academic and athletic life, especially on a college campus populated with high-achieving individuals such as ourselves. Haverford students continually strive for perfection, and for the most part, we are successful in doing so. 

However, in order to succeed, we must first face the competition. Competition comes in all forms, whether in the form of grades, student government, sports, or other extracurricular activities. Although Haverford is an institution that prides itself on collaborative higher learning, it is difficult to erase all remnants of rivalry in individuals who have already been conditioned to compete. 

In particular, the topic of competition finds a home in the athletic sector of higher education— perfectionism drives a majority of student athletes and encourages them to consistently perform at their best. While this mantra often yields success, we must also recognize that it perpetuates the unrealistic belief that perfection must always be upheld. Yes, there are benefits to pressure–pressure shapes the most successful athletes; pressure is the process by which diamonds are created, after all. That being said, that very same pressure can have the opposite effect, becoming heavy enough that it crushes even the most solid, most precious of athletes.

College athletics is known for turning the pressure up a notch in comparison to the youth and club levels; performance expectations increase and competition reaches new heights. Before college, our sport was a commitment that existed independent of school. Now, our sport has enraptured every aspect of our lives; there are practices and games, along with lifts, meetings, and the training room consuming our time outside of the classroom. Our sport essentially becomes our job, a job that we must perform at an optimal level, or else there are consequences. Constant worries pertaining to playing time, hitting personal records in the weight room, maintaining a nourishing diet, and preventing injuries amongst many others flood our heads from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep at night. Our mistakes can haunt us, and the guilt we possess in response to losses and failures can become debilitating. I do not write this as a means to complain about the “hardships” of a student-athlete schedule, as we are willing participants in our sports, but rather to give others a glimpse into an environment and its variables that they may not be as familiar with.

My mental health advocacy is rooted in passion as well as necessity. I am fortunate enough to have had a strong support system throughout my own mental health journey, yet I know that most individuals struggling do not experience the same reality. On account of this disparity in mental health education and care, I joined The Hidden Opponent (THO), a national non-profit advocacy group that raises awareness regarding mental health in student athletes. This organization focuses on proactive, rather than reactive, mental health work by addressing the stigma within sports culture and educating athletes on this universal struggle. THO was created in 2017 by former D1 athlete Victoria Garrick. Whilst playing volleyball at the University of Southern California, Garrick struggled with mental illness, which she shares in her viral TED Talk titled “Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent.” Our purpose as a club has been to expand the number of our representatives and spread awareness across our campus and community alike.

Caroline Frost ’26 (left) and Liv McMillan ’24 tabling for the Haverford chapter of The Hidden Opponent during the Spring 2024 Club Fair. Photo courtesy of Liv McMillan.

My primary goal, along with my club’s, is to build and provide accessible mental health services for athletes that feasibly works with an athlete’s schedule. I cannot begin to describe how disheartened I am each time I learn of a college athlete taking their own life, especially when we learn that the pressure they were facing in the classroom and on the field became too heavy to carry. It is because of this nationwide mental health crisis that our club has begun to advocate for the hiring of a sports psychologist. We have been deterred from creating a potential Plenary resolution due to the culture of Haverford itself, which puts immense emphasis on the status of “athlete” or “non-athlete.”

I will not be ignorant to the blatant divide that cleaves our community. Although I understand why this divide has widened, the separation of our population continues to hold us back from the potential for positive change at our school. We have been in conversation with the athletic administration about how we can better the resources and protocol pertaining to mental health in our student athletes. We have invited speakers from various backgrounds to discuss their own mental health journeys in the hope that students will engage in meaningful conversations pertaining to the topic. We have educated ourselves on how to bring active change into our college campus. Despite these efforts, however, our fight for a sports psychologist at Haverford cannot be won without the collective effort of our Haverford community. Our sister schools, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, both have sports psychologists affiliated with their athletic departments— this is a standard that we have yet to fulfill.

We have already made great strides in creating better resources for our Haverford community, yet we must push further. Along with The Hidden Opponent, efforts from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Active Minds club have been instrumental in the expansion of and advocacy for mental health resources. Recently, we spoke with the student interns of CAPS to gain a better understanding of what is possible for the future of therapy and other mental health resources on campus. Ultimately, every person deserves optimal care for their physical and mental needs, and the addition of a sports psychologist on our campus will bring us closer to meeting these standards. Every life matters, and we need to strive for an environment steeped in better advocacy and education of mental health awareness.

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