By: Anna Henderson, communications graduate student
College sports can take a toll on an athlete’s body that doctors, trainers and other staff work to combat every day through preventative workouts and exercises. As a former college volleyball player at UNC Charlotte, my knees crack and swell, my shoulder pops, and my back hurts sometimes. But just as college athletes have to take measures to prevent physical wear and tear, a focus on mental exercises and practices can become just as important to maintain mental health and combat feelings of anxiety and depression.
College athletes do their best to juggle the challenges all students face, with the added stress of traveling, practices, workouts, meetings, team and coaching dynamics, and the pressures of competing.
A new podcast program created by a master’s in public health student and her mentoring professor, funded by a grant from the NCAA, will help support the mental health of college athletes.
“Take a Timeout” will offer 24 gender-specific podcasts with scripted scenarios unique to the student-athlete experience and will provide strategies for coping with mental health challenges. The strategies are based on cognitive and dialectical behavior therapies (CBT/DBT), a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts. Using these strategies, the podcast episodes will consist of five modules geared toward problem solving, mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self-empowerment.
“With the athlete status comes an entire identity to uphold, and that pressure can be overwhelming,” said Abby Coffey, co-creator and former member of the UNC Charlotte’s women’s soccer team. “We are the brand. Everywhere we go, there is an image to uphold. In addition to this, athletics is so much more than physical participation. It is a full-time job that comes with a lot of baggage.”
Coffey came up with the idea for the program while reflecting on her own mental health struggles as a student-athlete. While recovering from a hospitalization for an eating disorder her junior year at UNC Charlotte, she noticed in talking to fellow athletes that many were struggling with challenges of their own. Over time, Coffey further developed the idea for the skills-based program and connected with Alicia Dahl from the Department of Public Health Sciences for help bringing it to fruition. Dahl has experience developing health education and promotion materials through podcasting and suggested this form of health communication as a low-cost strategy with broad engagement potential.
The project began as Coffey’s graduate research project, and the pair were then able to secure $20,000 in funding from the NCAA Innovations in Research Practice Grant program to pursue a 100-student pilot version of “Take a Timeout.”
“Aside from visual campaigns for health communication and health promotion, I think there’s a lot of power in the art of podcasts. When we talk about health topics through storytelling, people are more likely to engage with the content because they can relate to some aspect of the story,” Dahl said. ”’Take a Timeout’ seeks to overcome stigma around mental health in student-athletes by providing resources that can be accessed at their own initiative and focused solely on issues that pertain to college athletes to improve skills for coping with mental health challenges.
“I wanted to create an evidence-based intervention made by athletes for athletes, and that is exactly what this is,” said Coffey.
The NCAA plans to make “Take a Timeout” available to all division schools as a resource once the UNC Charlotte pilot study is complete.