Q&A: The Value of Sports Psychologists on College Campuses
Student-athletes face unique pressures, and sports psychologists can help them navigate their identities as students, athletes and emerging adults, says UA psychologist Alex Auerbach.
When Alex Auerbach was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, he took a student-worker position with the Wildcat football program, thinking he might one day like to become a football coach. Today, nearly a decade after earning his UA degree, he's back on campus serving in a different type of supporting role, as the director of clinical and sport psychology for Arizona Athletics.
Auerbach got his UA degree in business management in 2010 and went on to earn his doctorate in counseling psychology with a specialization in sport and performance psychology from the University of North Texas in 2018.
As a sports psychologist, he offers direct mental health care services to UA student-athletes and consults with coaches and other athletics staff members on issues that could have an impact on mental health. He's also a confidential resource for student-athletes with concerns about issues that fall under Title IX federal law, such as gender-based discrimination, violence or harassment.
With the amount of pressure college athletes face, having a psychologist embedded in athletic organizations can be extremely valuable, Auerbach says. During a recent seminar at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention in Chicago, he talked about how sport psychologists can support individual mental health, as well the health and culture of athletics programs more broadly.
Q: What are your primary responsibilities in Arizona Athletics?
A: First and foremost is direct student-athlete mental health care. NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) research suggests about 50% of student-athletes struggle with clinical or subclinical levels of anxiety. One in 3 struggles with clinical or subclinical levels of depression, 1 in 5 with eating disorders and about 1 in 10 with suicidality, but that number is probably an underrepresentation. The main emphasis of my job and why my job exists is to provide direct mental health care.
In addition to providing individual patient care, I also consult with athletics administration, coaches and whole sports programs. NCAA best practices related to mental health really emphasize sports psychologists being both individual mental health care providers and working with the larger system and systemic interventions, with the idea of promoting a healthy, inclusive environment where mental health care is normalized and accepted, as well as intervening when there is problematic behavior at a systemic level. Having us be available to intervene is really important. That sometimes means policy development or it might mean meetings with strength and conditioning staff, nutritionists, athletic trainers and the coaches to talk about team issues or a particular team crisis. I'm really lucky to be part of a department that's mental health friendly. Our athletics administration, starting from the top down with (athletics director) Dave Heeke, really value and support the mental health work we do, and have provided us and continue to provide us with resources to help us be successful. Athletics administration has made it clear that mental health and wellness is a top priority. Student-athlete health and safety and welfare is priority No. 1 of everybody here.
Q: What makes the student-athlete population unique in terms of their mental health needs?
A: First and foremost, student-athletes are all people, and I think that sometimes gets lost because they're so busy with a ton of demands. From a mental health perspective, what often looks different is that the things that we would suggest or recommend for your average college student as it relates to mental health – like exercise, social activity, structure – these student- athletes have all that, so we have to think sort of non-traditionally.
There are expectations for student-athletes to perform well academically and athletically, and what often gets lost in all of that is the opportunity to be a normal 18- to 22-year-old who wants to go out and have fun and meet new people and branch out to the rest of campus and not just be an athlete. It can be difficult navigating those two identities. As a student-athlete, there are expectations that your coaches and parents have, and if you're on full scholarship and that’s how you got to college, the pressure to stay healthy and compete is really ramped up. Then you're also navigating the other challenges that come with being an 18- to 22-year-old, like how do I start dating, how do I go through a breakup, how do I find my way on a college campus, how do I figure out who I am, how do I know what I want to study or what I want to do?
Q: What are the advantages of athletic organizations having an embedded mental health professional?
A: There are all these touchpoints that help with de-stigmatization and normalizing mental health. Having an office in the training room where I can go out and student-athletes will say hi to me helps promote a healthier culture of openness. Also, because we're not in the thick of each individual team's training the same way an athletic trainer or coach or strength and conditioning would be, we have the ability to take an outside perspective and listen to a team's problem or challenge with fresh ears. Sometimes it's really hard to see ways to resolve a particular challenge when you're in the thick of it, and for coaches and staff, solving each challenge and helping move the team forward is very important, so that's one area where we add value in terms of being embedded in the department.
Q: Your presentation at the APA Annual Convention touched on sports psychologists' potential role in athlete recruitment. Can you talk about that?
A: One thing I've had the opportunity to work on here is talent selection and acquisition, which is essentially recruiting, and helping coaches figure out the best questions to ask in a way that meets NCAA rules and gets them information that best matches what they want for their team. Historically, recruiting has just been about talking to all the different stakeholders and talking to student-athletes about how much we want them, but it should also be about the values of the team. If this is my team's identity, how do I best assess if this student-athlete that we're recruiting fits into this team identity versus another student-athlete who might have the exact same measurables in different areas, but we have to make a critical decision between the two? There is a recognition of how important the sport environment is to build a cohesive team, and that's something I'm really interested in.
Q: Most college athletes won't go on to compete professionally. Do you offer any tools to help prepare them for life after sports?
A: We have offered programs to help student-athletes transition out of sport in the past, and student-athletes here and nationwide use their sport psychologists to help prepare for life after sport. Some of us, myself included, have training in vocational psychology, which I often draw on to help with this process. I also talk with them about their hopes and fears about leaving sport, and help them cope with what is likely to look and feel very different in the future. Much of that process, I think, has to do with role transition and identity transition – helping student-athletes find themselves as people outside of sport – and moving toward a place of having sport be just part of their identity, rather than the central core or potentially entirety of their identity. The NCAA also has a number of resources available for student-athletes, and our department here has a unique internship program and other resources that really help student-athletes prepare for life after sport.
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