At a place like Williams, the pursuit of “effortless perfection” is unquestionably the norm. Although perfection is unattainable, we are asked for it in the classroom, on the stage and on the athletic field. No matter which arena we call our own, the goal is always the same: Be the best you can be. You must be good enough to get the part, the grade or the spot on the team.
Although perfection is impossible in any arena, athletics is one of the few areas in which it is visible when you do not achieve it. You are not good enough to be on the field. You don’t run fast enough, jump high enough or race hard enough. You don’t win enough. It is obvious from looking on the field, court or track where you fall in the hierarchy of perfection.
The pressure to achieve perfection in athletics can lead to a variety of mental health issues. The number of athletes that I have heard struggle with mental illness daily is upsetting.
In addition to our inability to reach perfection, athletics is complicated by the fact that we are constantly competing against not only our opponents but also our best friends. Thus, it can be difficult to admit when there is a bigger problem like depression because such an admission makes us vulnerable, which in turn makes fierce and fearless competition even more difficult. Moreover, we are asked to forget everything outside the athletic arena when we come to practice so that we focus only on sports, but sometimes we have bad contests or practices because that is just not possible. Depression is something that follows people everywhere. Additionally, athletics are typically thought of as a place to escape from the stresses of the normal day, but what happens when they help contribute to it instead? What happens when a bad game or bad race turns into a bad few days and a fight with your friends?
Disordered eating also is a serious problem in athletics – around the country and here at the College. In many sports, players are expected to make a certain weight or drop a couple pounds so that they can better run up and down the field or even look nicer in a uniform. What happens, though, when those couple of pounds leads to a serious problem? I have heard of coaches telling their players they need to lose weight if they want to play. This added questioning of our bodies from an adult whom we respect can lead to larger issues. Coaches’ desires for their teams to be in shape is reasonable, but we have to be careful when discussing weight so as not to send the wrong message about weight loss. There have been many athletes over the last several years who have been told they cannot compete because their disordered eating has become extreme. We need a way to combat these issues before that happens. While people – and especially girls – everywhere struggle with disordered eating, this issue seems to be particularly prominent in athletics. In addition to virtual ultimatums to play, the need to control weight can come from athletes’ competitive tendencies and need for control. Sometimes, this competitive nature can be all-consuming and become compulsive.
I think the College has taken on the fight for mental health and well-being productively; however, there are specific ways to tackle these problems within athletics. To begin with, coaches should go through a mandatory training on how to conduct conversations with their teams about difficult issues such as depression and disordered eating. Team captains should learn about how to best address these issues as well, both for their own well-being and that of their teammates. Captains are the link between members of the team as well as between the team and its coaches. They could address their teams in an informal way that would make the conversation more comfortable.
If addressing mental health on teams becomes a routine, people struggling with these issues may find it easier to talk about or just realize that others care and that they are not alone in these struggles. Because over 40 percent of our campus participates in varsity athletics, addressing these issues within teams would help us reach a huge number of people in our fight against mental health. No, not everybody in athletics struggles, but addressing these issues as a group will help create a community in which those who are struggling know that others care and are available to talk. We need to start targeting athletes in our fight against mental illness. Not only will this allow us to reach out to many people in our community simultaneously, but it will also help us form the inclusive community we strive to be.
Ali Piltch ’14 is from Bryn Mawr, Penn. She lives in Thompson.