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What the NCAA's mental health crisis means for college golf

This article originally appeared on the Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

June 01, 2022

“I think there’s been two suicides since the last time we talked.”

That’s from a source who participated in this story. It had been only two weeks since our prior conversation.

Six suicides in the past three months across NCAA athletics is the starkest evidence of the mental health crisis in college sports. Golfers, with their long, grinding season and individualistic orientations, are particularly vulnerable. Covid has only made it worse. How did we get here? And how do we lead these student-athletes out of the darkness?

“It’s not necessarily new,” says Will Green, head coach of the Princeton men’s golf team, whose coaching career has spanned 23 years. “I think how we deal with it is a little newer than the recognition of it.”

Defining the problem

Survey findings released by the NCAA in May 2022 suggest “mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression have seen little change since fall 2020 and remain 1.5 to two times higher than identified before the COVID-19 pandemic.” On a macro-scale, post-pandemic mental health is on the decline, with the WHO (World Health Organization) reporting the pandemic triggered a 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression. The WHO’s findings also emphasize that young people are one of the most severely impacted populations.

College golfers face acute challenges. Their offseasons are short, and “summer break” usually means more competition at the state and national level. Effectively, there’s never an off-button.

In-season, the guardrails to protect the players are shaky at best. NCAA ByLaw 17.1.7.1 mandates “a student-athlete’s participation in countable athletically related activities shall be limited to a maximum of four hours per day and 20 hours per week.” Language is important here—“countable” only accounts for practices, competition, skill-related instruction, visiting the competition site, athletic meetings initiated by a coach, and required strength and conditioning. Even then the math doesn’t add up: a 36-hole competition days count as just THREE hours against the 20-hour maximum.

And then there are demands—spoken and unspoken, applied by coaches, teammates, parents, social media comparisons, and the voice inside every player’s head—that college golfers put in long hours on their own, working on their game. “Depending on your coach, they might look at [20 hours a week] as the bare minimum,” says Calvin Sierota (below), a recent graduate from the Florida State men’s golf team, who spent his senior year as captain. “They want to see who’s putting in that extra time.”

Speaking up isn’t the answer at times, either.

“[Players] are scared to say something,” one player said. “Coaches aren’t going to be happy if they’re getting in trouble from their own athletes.” In April, the NCAA concluded an investigation into the Ohio State women’s golf program, citing violations of “athletically countable rules over several years,” including concerns from players that practices spilled into class times and tutoring. The NCAA also found that the 20-hour limit had also been violated on multiple occasions.

And so far we haven’t even mentioned all the time college golfers spend in the classroom, studying and making up the work they have missed on long road trips. Or that many golfers are only on partial scholarships and also face financial pressure that are unknown to athletes in more visible sports who enjoy full rides. Plus, NIL. “I think that’s why the NCAA is so hesitant to acknowledge the realities of the work-life balance of college athletes,” says Katie Lever, author of Surviving the Second Tier, a fictional dystopia inspired by her doctoral candidacy in NCAA rhetoric and time as a student-athlete. “They would have to admit that this idea that they’ve been supporting for years..is actually incorrect,” she adds.

Seeking help

Ivy Shepherd never tallied up the sleepless nights or the days in a row she spent isolating herself in bed. Why would she? She wanted everyone around her to know the extraverted, goofy Ivy. Not the other side that was quickly taking over.

Her personality was as bright as her golf game, or so it seemed. Entering college, Shepherd was one of the most highly-touted recruits in Clemson’s history. And during her breakout freshman season, she earned all-conference honors.

Like clockwork, she’d remind herself it wasn’t enough.

“Almost every conscious hour of my day, I was focused on golf and worried about golf,” Shepherd says.

It wasn’t until Shepherd sought treatment toward the end of her freshman year that she realized how much she reduced her self-worth to numbers on a scorecard. Eventually, she’d open up to an assistant coach and some of her teammates–something she wishes happened sooner.

Shepherd (below) had suffered from “identity foreclosure”, defined by the APA as a “premature commitment to an identity: the unquestioning acceptance by individuals of the roles, values, and goals that others (e.g. parents, close friends, teachers, athletic coaches) have chosen for them.” It’s a prevalent trait among many high-level athletes, especially in golfers, who oftentimes cite their earliest memories with a club in hand. Mike Clark, sport psychologist at the University of Arizona, says graduation is when this hits student-athletes the hardest. “The question that I often ask people who are coming to this realization is ‘When did you start playing your sport?’” Clark says. “For many, they say four-years-old. I say, ‘Okay, so tell me about a memory that you have before you were playing sports. And it’s like, blink, blink, blink, blink…they can’t come up with one.’”

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This can lead golfers down a reactive path like Shepherd’s, in which mental health crises are not fully recognized until too late. “We wait for the house to be completely on fire before we advocate for somebody to go get treatment,” says Bhrett McCabe, the consulting sport and performance psychologist for the University of Alabama.

This begs two questions: Am I comfortable getting help?

The NCAA’s findings revealed less than half of participants in men’s and women’s sports felt comfortable seeking help from their on-campus mental health providers.

Is help even accessible?

On the elite level, about 80 % of universities that compete in Power Five conferences have at least one full-time mental health professional on staff. But these caregivers are increasingly finding themselves booked up. Clark says sport psychologists in athletic departments have noticed an upward trend in individuals seeking out support in the last two to three years. On average, he says, between morning individual sessions and floating between team practices, he can see upwards of 30 individuals each day.

At mid-majors and the lower levels, including DII, DII and NAIA, the help is generally delegated to on-campus mental health providers or outside referrals, which become a costly and lengthier process than in-house help.

Tennessee Tech sophomore Hailey Stegemann candidly shared the struggles she faced in her freshman year on Instagram. Stegemann was injured in her fall semester and was kept out of golf for five months, spending plenty of time in isolation.

Having previously dealt with mental health struggles, Stegemann (below) wasn’t reluctant to seek help, but her athletics department did not have an in-house sport psychologist. She was told to seek out her campus’s counseling center. When she finally got in, she still felt the therapist couldn’t empathize with the challenges faced by student-athletes. She chose to obtain care outside of the university, having to cover the costs herself. “It would make a huge difference having someone on staff that is specifically for the athletes,” Stegemann says.

The NCAA’s constitution mandates each and every member school “[facilitate] an environment that reinforces physical and mental health within athletics by ensuring access to appropriate resources and open engagement with respect to physical and mental health”.

A former Florida State women’s golfer found herself struggling with depression and said it took months before she was able to see a therapist. By the time she got in, the situation became so unbearable that she had already planned to enter the transfer portal. That substantiates another unfortunate reality: per the NCAA’s most recent survey, mental health is the most common reason for student-athletes contemplating transfers.

“If someone wanted to make that decision, who am I to decide that?” says Trake Carpenter, a former DI men’s golf coach. “I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time judging. It’s not fun for anyone when it happens.”

Many college athletes don’t feel they are given that space. An NCAA study published in 2019 found only 49% of female student-athletes felt comfortable talking about mental health with their coaches, while 62% of male student-athletes shared those sentiments.

“It just comes down to the coaches for the most part,” says Kate Smith, a former Nebraska women’s golfer. “I’ve just understood that their words and actions matter.”

Now, belatedly, coaches are engaging in the conversation and educating themselves, with training and educational resources that have become more readily available. UCLA’s Carrie Forsyth has embraced the evolution of the mental health discourse. But Forsyth notes potential legal ramifications from HIPAA laws often leave coaches in a compromising position in terms of how much they can respond. “Even if you sense there’s a problem, you can direct your student to those resources, but it’s up to them to reach out to those resources,” Forsyth says. “It does feel very stifling at times. I want to do more, I want their parents to know, and there’s just limits on that.”

But the mental health of coaches matters as well, especially in the context of how many athletes rely on them. With institutional demands increasing by the year, coaches report similar levels of burnout to their student-athletes. Compliance, van driver, recruitment; the responsibilities outside of the role of “coach” only pile up by the year.

Tyler Bradstreet, Director of Clinical & Sport Psychology at Texas Tech University, says he hopes to see an increase in resources for those coaches, too. “When you’re on a plane, there’s a reason they tell you to put your mask on first before you help somebody with theirs,” Bradstreet says. “I want you to have a pulse on the well-being of your team and how to support them. But you have to be in a good place first.”

Where do we go from here?

Some athletes are pushing for change to be led by their peers, whose relatability can be their biggest strength. Schools like Harvard and Princeton have adopted an internal peer helper program named SAWL (Student Athletic Wellness Leaders) intended to ease the process of help-seeking. Other programs like The Hidden Opponent, a chapter-based national peer helper program, have spread to over 25 universities across the United States and are only growing by the year.

Taylor Roberts is in the process of chartering the University of Florida chapter and is diligently working with Duke golfer Phoebe Brinker to run the Impact Cup, a two-day summer event for college golfers intended to highlight mental health. Participants fundraise $1,000 each benefitting Generation Next, a charity aimed at providing tools to combat mental health in golf. Neither Roberts nor Brinker felt comfortable sitting back based on their own struggles and those around them.

Collaborative efforts between coaches, players, and mental health professionals are needed within a governing body that refuses to fully acknowledge the role it has in providing a safety net for student-athletes.

The first step? “Having more conversations at practice, having more conversation behind closed doors with administrators,” Clark says. “Helping them to understand truly what’s going on, at 8:30 pm on a Wednesday night, week six of the semester, when someone has thought, ‘Hey, I want to end my life.’”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or dial 911 in case of emergency.