Learning to cope

Soccer players describe mental health challenges without season

Being a student athlete can take a toll mentally during a regular season, but add in the stressfulness of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of any sports, and it’s a whole different challenge.

Women’s soccer junior forward Edina Taerbaum said one of the hardest parts of this year is the fact that a lot of it is out of her control. With no season in sight right now, staying at a competitive level fitness and skills-wise is a challenge Taerbaum struggles with mentally.

“It does give me anxiety and stresses me out in terms of staying at the level I want,” Taerbaum said. “I like to keep myself fit and in shape for season, so sometimes the days when I’m not feeling up to working out, those days are hard for me because if I don’t work out, I get really hard on myself. But sometimes I do try take a step back and realize hey, everyone needs days off and some rest. In regard to soccer, it’s kind of anxiety-provoking because we just don’t know when we’re going to be able to return back. It’s just so unknown and uncertain.”

Online classes presented an entirely new challenge for students this year, and they affected athletes as well. Senior defender Maddie Dickens, who took online classes over the summer, adapted easier than some but still found the transition to be difficult.  

Without soccer games so far this year due to COVID-19, Dickens took on a bigger school load. Despite soccer demanding less time in her week, she feels that she is busier now than ever before due to her greater commitment to school.  

Given the difficulties of being a student athlete, it might seem that a break from the usual weekly grind that comes with athletics would be nice, but Dickens felt nothing of the sort.  

“I would love to have a normal season right now,” she said. “I don’t think that any break could compare to how much I miss the competition or the feeling of winning a game. It’s really tough to not have that feeling right now.”  

Dickens noted that having the right mindset is essential for her to be successful as both a student and an athlete, something that can be difficult to achieve at times. The stresses of everyday life and school can be difficult to overcome, and athletes must also deal with the pressure of performing in practice and during games. 

“I do think that the mental and physical toll is the hardest part about being a student-athlete,” Dickens said. “We’re in and out of weights, we’re in and out of practice. With school, it’s like you’re sprinting from one class to another.” 

To balance everything in her life, Dickens said she needs to be “in the zone.” For her, that includes focusing as much as possible in class, working as hard as she can in practice, and knowing when she needs to take a step back. 

“Part of making sure I’m in that zone is knowing when I need a break,” Dickens said. “I can’t really say I need a break from work or soccer but if I’m feeling mentally wiped or drained and I don’t have time for an assignment that’s not due that night, I just make sure I get to bed early or I go to church or I take time to watch Netflix.” 

Dickens believed that those periods of time to herself for relaxation were essential to maintaining a healthy mindset. For her, a healthy mind is the most important thing to being the best athlete and student she can be.  

Self-reflection is something that Dickens believes is necessary for student athletes. Through self-reflection, she learned what she is capable of. This in turn helps her from becoming overwhelmed.  

“Everyone has to know their own limits,” Dickens said. “For me, if I know that I have to run a fitness test and I have a test and I have work on that same day, I have to make sure that I’m prepared for that in advance. I have to pack a lunch in advance or get a good night sleep the night before.” 

For Taerbaum, keeping soccer on the field and not letting herself dwell on her mistakes have helped her cope mentally. The sport she loves is a double-edged sword, both providing her a release from her regular, daily stressors, but providing its own stress as a result of how hard she is on herself.

With a roster of 33 to 35 players the past three seasons the competition and pressure to earn a starting spot is sometimes overwhelming.

“My freshman year, it got pretty bad, I’d just be beating myself up after games,” Taerbaum said. “Always my mind on soccer, what I needed to do better. As I’ve gone along, I’ve realized that soccer is important but there’s more to life than soccer. I’m going to do what I can when I’m on the field, I’m going to put in my work, put in my effort, and then when I get home I’m going to use that time to focus on other things in my life. That’s helped me a lot to not be continuously be stressed about soccer and dwell on my mistakes. Because it definitely did get to the point where it was very mentally draining and had an effect on my mental health.

“It does have an effect on my mental health because at the end fo the day, we have a really big roster and only 11 can start, so it’s just something I’ve had to come to terms with and continue to control what I can control.”

Taebaum’s advice to other athletes struggling with their mental health right now is to remember that the uncertainty in life is part of its beauty and to be compassionate to yourself.

“Look at all the things in life you have to be grateful for,” Taerbaum said. “Invest your time in your passions besides the sport you’re playing, because there are so many other things you can do with your time to fill that space that your sport would fill.”

Cora Hall contributed to this story.