Competition and Balance


Mental health in athletics.



The buzzwords of “mental health” and “athletics” typically evoke thoughts of concussions, CTE, and other such forms of physical injury to the brain; examples in professional sports abound, and recent attention has highlighted the impact of new research in football specifically. When watching sports on TV, reading about them in the news, or hearing of injury on ESPN, it is simple to limit the definition of mental health, especially when considered in the context of athletics. However, playing the sport, or even watching it in person, conjures a new realization.


The understanding of mental health in an academic setting has been rapidly gaining more attention. Pressures to perform well in classes and exams, maintain societal expectations, remain healthy and happy, while also carrying the burdens that each individual must bear are well understood to put pressure on a student’s mental state. As a result, support systems abound: peer-peer support, institutional assistance, or outside references. Although their effectiveness may be questioned, their existence belies an understanding that a student’s mental wellbeing is critical to their success. The analog to sports is very similar; there exists a constant pressure to perform and also a necessity to balance practice, training, events, games and competitions with schoolwork. Therefore, it is apparent that mental health in athletics extends far beyond physical injury, and should, as a result, have the same if not greater access to mental health facilities.


To understand where athletes derive respite from the tolls of both academic and athletic rigor, I spoke to freshmen athletes who went through the process daily. A Men’s Rugby player mentioned that the primary source of support derived from the camaraderie and close-nature of the team itself; the team stood by its teammates. This type of support makes sense; while academic competition can sometimes drive students apart, competition as part of a team often fares to bring team members even closer together.


There are instances, however, where inter-team conflict can put its own pressure on mental health. While these cases are often kept quiet and within the team, some instances rise to media spotlight. One of the largest, and most controversial, cases in the popular culture sphere was that of Jonathan Martin, an offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. In his story, he succumbed to bullying/harassing tendencies by a fellow teammate, and chose to release his encounters with the harassers publicly. Martin had previously dealt with depression, and the treatment by his teammates only further pushed the limits of his willpower. The lack of a proper outlet, while on the team itself, challenged Martin to handle and solve his issues alone – which is unreasonable for any of his position. Here at Harvard, according to several students across teams, a convenient outlet within the team is still difficult to find and even harder to take advantage of; however, the resources that the college has put in place offer a reassurance – there is always someone there to listen.


On the other hand, many describe the positive benefits athletics have on maintaining a healthy and balanced physical and mental lifestyle. The challenge of meeting high demands encourages discipline and necessitates taking care of oneself. The team atmosphere, and having the oft described “family” is absolutely critical, and the group of friends that results from being a member of an athletic team is one of the greatest advantages of being a student-athlete. Sure, athletics can add stress and pressure, but the sport or event itself, and its preparation, is referred to as a highly motivating factor, and offers a release and escape from daily academic rigors that is unparalleled. Thus, the very same nature of the sport that puts athletes under such duress oftentimes can provide the very same outlet they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.


Tushar Dwivedi ( hopes that all of Harvard’s athletes came back rested from break!