Mental Gain or Mental Strain?

Savanna Spadalik, Staff Writer

Participating in high school athletics provides physical, emotional, and social benefits to many student-athletes. Taking on the responsibility of being both a dedicated student and an accomplished athlete requires focus, perseverance, and hard work.  It often requires one to give up free time, personal hobbies, and socialization with friends. Daytime hours are packed with academic classes and after-school practices, and evening hours are crammed with eating, showering, homework, and bedtime. Because of the tremendous effort required, and the limited time available, being a successful student-athlete is extremely stressful….and so in the end, is it a mental gain or a mental strain?

Being a Daler comes with a lot of tradition and reputation to uphold, whether it’s being a Playcrafter, robotics team member, gifted artist, musician, dancer, club member or athlete. Every student at Farmingdale High School who is also involved in an extracurricular activity can attest to the fact that it’s time consuming and oftentimes stressful, but specifically being an athlete is by far one of the most demanding activities to be involved in.  Almost half of the students at Farmingdale High School play on at least one JV or varsity sports team, while at the same time juggling school work and homework. Three-hour daily practices, traveling to away games, watching videos of opposing teams, all while trying to do schoolwork, homework, and maintaining that 90+ grade average can be overwhelming and tremendously stress provoking. Coming home from practice physically exhausted, quickly eating a long awaited late dinner, and still having a night of homework ahead,  often proves too demanding. Many student-athletes eventually experience burnout and develop a negative attitude towards a once loved sport. According to Jaimie Duffek, author of When Stress is Good for Student-Athletes and When it’s Not, burnout occurs when feelings of helplessness take over, and a student-athlete is no longer motivated to play their sport. Duffek states, “Ongoing stress affects not just a student-athlete’s performance, but their school and personal lives, as well.”

As the writer of this article, I have firsthand knowledge of what it is to be a three-sport high school athlete. I wake up sore and drained everyday and face a full school day of classes and exams. Then, right after school ends, I go to practice for either cross country, basketball, or lacrosse (depending on the season) and physically challenge my body to its maximum potential. Then fatigued, hungry, and sweaty, I finally go home, take a shower and attempt to eat a healthy dinner.  Since my schedule is so crazy and unpredictable, I usually miss out on family dinners and have to eat a late dinner of reheated food. Then, just when my body wants to shut down for the night, I have to start my homework. At this point, I’m already so tired and lacking in motivation, that my productivity isn’t effective, but I know I have to apply myself to several more hours of homework. Often there’s just too much to accomplish, and therefore, both my sanity and the number of hours I can sleep end up suffering.  And the most disheartening realization is that when I finally get to go to bed, I know that I just have to wake up the next morning and repeat that same stressful routine again and again and again…

To get another perspective on student-athletes, I interviewed Kiersten Hacker, who is a member of the competitive cheer team, my buddy in Journalism, and an incredible store associate at Modell’s (go visit her lol). Kierstan expressed her own struggles: “The peak of our cheer season was right in the middle of the school year. With midterms, Christmas, and the long winter season, I had practice and extra practices, along with school work, trying to get work done with the crazy deadlines before Christmas break. I started to get really stressed, which isn’t good for your mental health, but you know in the end, you push through for the sport. Especially at the collegiate level, I can see why mental health issues have become such an increasingly significant topic because when you’re trying to get an education that will basically determine your future, and manage playing a sport, it’s hard. You can take fewer credits to lessen the stress, but then that may not be in your best interest for graduating. You also miss out on a lot of certain experiences because you’re with your teammates all the time or just playing the sport itself. Being a student-athlete definitely takes a toll on your well being, so I think such commercialization and emphasis on sports of a highly competitive nature may not always be beneficial to us in the end.”

After interviewing many student-athletes and researching the findings of credible experts in the field of high school sports, I have arrived at a positive philosophy for student-athletes. If student-athletes learn to set realistic expectations for themselves and focus on one day at a time, they can minimize stress and keep themselves at a high level of performance.  Setting reasonable goals that are attainable lowers stress and frustration while building self-esteem. In addition, focusing on the agenda for the day, as opposed to worrying about all the monumental academic and athletic tasks ahead, is definitely less overwhelming. The ability of a student-athlete to successfully manage one day at a time builds confidence and reduces stress.  With the high demands of participating in competitive high school sports and simultaneously maintaining good grades, it’s imperative that student-athletes stay in tune with themselves. Each student-athlete needs to find the right balance between setting realistic expectations for what he or she wants to accomplish, while still reaching one’s full potential. There is a fine line between pushing oneself hard enough to achieve at a higher level, and pushing oneself towards a breaking point. The key is making sure you’re in the right situation for you…that you’re maximizing gain while minimizing strain.