By TYLER ELLISON
KEARNEY – Bailey Sterling is an elite athlete.
She is one of the top players on the University of Nebraska at Kearney volleyball team, currently ranked No. 6 in NCAA Division II.
The 5-foot-11 middle blocker has all the physical tools to succeed on the court. She can run fast, jump high and swing hard.
“I feel like I’m strong in that area,” Sterling said, “but there’s a whole different side of health that’s just starting to be talked about.”
The Kearney senior has always focused on her nutrition and exercise, but was hesitant to tackle another important area — mental health.
Sterling uses the word “stubborn,” but in reality, her initial thoughts about counseling are common among college students, especially athletes.
I don’t need to see a therapist.
My problems are not big enough to seek help.
I can figure this out on my own.
Talking about your feelings is a sign of weakness.
“I know I’ve been wanting to see someone for a long time,” Sterling said. “I think it just took me a while to get comfortable and realize, ‘OK, now you can go.'”
Since the beginning of the fall semester, Sterling has been meeting regularly with Kifani Hoff, associate director of counseling at UNK. They talk about a wide range of topics, from athletics and academics to everyday life – whatever Sterling thinks.
“It’s nice to have someone who listens, guides the conversation, and gives me the tools to work through my thoughts and feelings. It takes a lot off my plate,” Sterling said. “As athletes we have a lot going on and sometimes it can be easy to dismiss the mental health side of things.”
A GROWING NEED
Hoff, a licensed mental health practitioner, began partnering with UNK Athletics in January for that very reason. She spends six hours a week in the Health and Sports Center – time dedicated specifically to serving Loper’s student-athletes.
“They are a unique population,” Hoff said. “Unless you’re an athlete, you really don’t understand all the different pressures they face. While their sport consumes most of their time, so do all the other parts of being a young adult.
In addition to the academic and personal challenges students face, athletes must also meet the expectations associated with their sport – practices, training, travel, games and the pressure to win. It can be a lot to handle.
Colleges and universities across the country have seen increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression among student-athletes, especially during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when sports were canceled and players were cut off from their coaches and teammates.
“Because mental health is in such a state of crisis, you’re seeing more athletic departments get involved in how to deal with it and provide additional support,” Hoff said.
At UNK, mental health is part of the athletic department’s overall mission. It is emphasized along with areas such as strength and conditioning, sports medicine, sports science, sports psychology, and player and coach development.
“Our focus is on our student-athletes and their well-being, and mental health is a big component of that,” said UNK Athletic Director Mark Bauer. “We truly take a holistic approach that addresses the physical, mental and social needs of our athletes.”
Loper’s student-athletes complete a quarterly performance survey that includes questions related to mental health. Based on these results, we may contact some students and refer them to Hoff and UNK’s counseling services. All sessions are voluntary and confidential.
Sterling, who meets Hoff outside of athletics classes, has a message for any student who may be hesitant to seek help.
“Just go and try it out,” she said. “If it’s not your thing, don’t feel obligated to come back. But be open to it.”
In addition to individual counseling sessions, Hoff is also part of a unique program launched this semester by UNK head women’s basketball coach Carrie Eigme.
Like many other coaches, Eighmey saw more and more players stop by her office to discuss mental health issues.
“We felt this was an area where our student-athletes needed resources and guidance,” she said. “They came in individually believing they were the only ones feeling that way, but in fact many of their teammates felt the same way.”
Instead of giving them a phone number for counseling services, Eighmey decided to take a different approach.
“Let’s talk about it as a team and let’s normalize some of the things you’re feeling so we can work through this together and we can help each other and learn about it together.”
Eighmey partnered with Hof, nutritionist Kaiti George, and sports psychologist and psychology professor Krista Fritson to develop a curriculum that addresses health and wellness from multiple angles. The basketball team meets four times a month to discuss a specific topic. For the first three weeks, Hoff, George and Fritson join them individually and focus specifically on their areas of expertise – mental health, nutrition and psychology. At the fourth meeting, all three professionals are there to talk about the topic from a holistic perspective.
“For us, success is becoming the best that we can be, and focusing on the whole person is such a big part of that,” Eigmi said. “I’m not sure you can achieve that without focusing on the whole person.”
So far, the response from her players has been overwhelmingly positive.
“They love it,” Eigmi said. “They know we’re invested in them as individuals, and they want to be better equipped with the tools and strategies to deal with the things that come their way. I think they really appreciate it because they see how it positively affects all areas of their lives – as a student, as an athlete, as a friend, as a member of our campus environment and the Kearney community.”
The program became a pilot project for the entire athletic department, which records the sessions to share with other coaches.
“I hope it continues to develop into new areas and new ideas that other coaches will take off with,” Bauer said.