John Eastman is far from living the easy life right now.
Between a highly publicized competition for a starting spot on the CSU football team, fighting a nagging injury, dealing with a move to a new town and trying to get a college education in his spare time, Eastman has a lot on his mind at the moment.
While the average college student may have difficulty coping with the pressures of college life, athletes appear to have it a little tougher some of the time.
Not only do they have the pressure of college academic expectations, but added pressure to perform for coaches and fans. All these stresses can easily begin to take a toll.
Eastman, a former starting quarterback for Snow Junior College in Utah transferred to CSU for the spring semester to try to fill the vacant quarterback position. Now at the end of the spring season, the junior admitted the past few weeks have been mentally taxing on him.
“Coming in, I knew this spring was going to be one of the hardest times for me because it is just so much learning,” Eastman said. “If I can stick it out I know things are going to be cool.”
CSU head coach Steve Fairchild is more than familiar with the mental pressures of college athletics. A former CSU star quarterback himself, Fairchild openly admits he can be hard on players, especially quarterbacks like Eastman. Fairchild justifies his tough love approach by explaining this is how life in the real world will be.
“It’s something that you learn,” he said. “When we all go out and get a job, we have to be able to handle the mental drudgery of whatever we are doing. They have to be able to handle that here too, and this (college sport) is a good life lesson for them.”
Klint Kubiak, a senior safety for the Rams, explained how much strain the pressures of college can cause athletes, especially when they first experience university life.
“It’s really hard when you’re a freshman, but eventually you get used to it and it becomes part of your everyday life,” the fifth-year student said. “You just have to be good at organizing school and football and sometimes that can be really hard with midterms coming up. You just have to find a balance and I’m at a point where it’s not hard for me, but I’m sure it’s hard on the young guys.”
Help out there
Dr. Steve Ross works as a sports psychologist at the CSU counseling center and knows just how much college life can impact athletes.
“Athletes have two full-time jobs basically,” Ross said. “They are full-time athletes and full-time students and for a lot of them they actually work. They are probably busier than most other students on campus.”
Ross said that while athletes at CSU are by and large mentally stable, some do struggle with keeping their minds in a healthy state. He explained that depression, anxiety and an inability to balance demanding schedules are all possible side effects of being a college athlete.
To combat these possible problems and also increase on-field performance, Ross works with athletes in CSU’s Sport and Performance Program. During its existence, the SPP has worked with every D-I team on campus, along with elite athletes in the Fort Collins community and is currently trying to expand.
Ross explained exactly what the goal of the SPP is.
“It’s a program that’s based on sports psychology and the principles are about helping individuals and athletes excel at life,” he said. “We talk about the ides of sports enchantment and the mental game of athletics.”
Ross said that along with balancing the pressures of life, the main mental problems athletes face come from the pressure to perform at such a high level, adding that his program can help focus and performance.
“There is such a huge mental load on peak performance,” Ross said. “The athletes who take hold of some of these psych principles and really run with them are the ones who are going to be more successful.”
Along with counseling, the SPP work on helping athletes using techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises and mood building, a technique that helps athletes find the state they perform best at.
Brian Butki, a professor of health and exercise science, agrees with Ross’s assessment of the effects of a positive mental mindset. Butki teaches a class on sports and exercise science featuring this principle and explained that repairing an athlete’s psyche starts with positive thoughts.
“You’re not just fixing problems, you are developing an overall positive mindset,” Butki said. “It’s not letting problems affect you in the first place and going from there.”
Butki works with a wide variety of athletes, including golfers and football players, but said that quarterbacks are particularly susceptible to mental problems. Luckily, the department director has a way that can help highly stressed players like Eastman.
“The key is getting the blocks out of the way,” Butki said. “A quarterback is going to be anxious. Pressure to perform along with everything else going on in his life clogs up the mechanism in his mind and makes it difficult to perform. He needs to put his anxiety away and focus on the important stuff.”
Butki’s biggest piece of advice is to go back to the basics and to love the game you play.
How to deal
While some athletes have found mental health through the Sports Performance Program or counseling, others chose to go about it their own way.
Dion Morton, a wide receiver and teammate of Kubiak and Eastman, said it is easy to see when someone is going through a hard time mentally, but has learned the most effective way of handling the situation. Morton is a leader for the Rams and is coming off his best college season to date, posting 10 touchdowns and nearly 900 yards receiving.
“You can see it in peoples’ eyes sometimes during practice,” said Morton, referring to the mental strain of balancing college life. “You just have to try and pick peoples’ spirits up when that happens. If you can stay in it mentally, stay mentally focused and prepared, you should do all right.”
Eastman has discovered his own technique of coping while at CSU. The junior said that the most effective way of dealing with all the mental pressure accumulating the past few months is going back to the basic things that have gotten him to this point.
“I have a lot of good support,” he said. “My brothers are football players and I talk to them and all my great friends. Talking to them kind of helps me realize that I need to look back and say this is football and I love it.”
Eastman added that he wouldn’t give up because the best is still to come.
“It’s like anything in life, you just have to push through it,” Eastman said. “A lot of people cease and desist too early and then they don’t get to see the blessings come through and the amazing things happen.”
Sports reporter Adam Bohlmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.