The Impact of the 2024 NCAA Realignment on Student-Athletes’ Mental Health – The Daily Wildcat
The Impact of the 2024 NCAA Realignment on Student-Athletes’ Mental Health – The Daily Wildcat

This fall, the NCAA’s conference realignment will be in full effect, and the effects on student-athletes’ mental health due to this change have largely been left out of the conversation. This realignment, the process of collegiate athletic programs changing conference membership from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 due to financial, competitive and geographic incentives, will cause student-athletes to face different travel time commitments and fluctuations in their level of play .

Sports psychology is a a field that deals with the well-being and performance of athletes from a psychological perspective and also concentrates on systemic issues in sports settings.

As the conference realignment takes place, sport psychology and its development will be important now more than ever. In 2007, University of Arizona was one of the first five schools in the NCAA to hire a full-time psychologist within athletics, according to Mike Clark, director of clinical and sport psychology at the UA. The UA chapter, along with chapters across the country, has since grown dramatically.

The impact of conference realignment on student-athlete mental health

The prevention and treatment of mental health issues is a top priority for sport psychology departments, and it is expected that a variety of mental health issues will increase for student-athletes as a result of the conference realignment.

“I predict that concerns about sleep will increase, which is usually associated with concerns about stress management, depression, and maladaptive coping (substance use, numbing, etc.).” Several of these concerns only exacerbate other concerns [student-athletes] person (pressure to perform, deal with injuries, NIL),” Clark said.

These changes will force the UA department to stay abreast of the most appropriate prevention and treatment strategies for student-athletes.

Samantha Nagy, Ph.D student in the clinical psychology program and clinical externship in the UA Department of Athleticsworks at Insomnia and Sleep Health Research Lab run by Daniel Taylor.

Big said that student-athletes may be in a developmental stage spanning late adolescence to young adulthood that can affect sleep.

“This requires longer sleep duration (eg closer to 9 hours instead of 7-8) and predisposes them to delayed circadian preferences (ie they want to go to bed later and wake up later) ” Big said.

naggingy added that increased physical activity also requires more sleep. This sleep allows the body to recover and learning and memory consolidation to take place. The social demands and access to technology for college athletes can also lead to late nights.

Because of these factors, along with early practice requirements, classes, and travel obligations, Big said it can be difficult for student-athletes to get the amount of sleep they need.

Big also said there are “structural (department-level education and stressing the importance of sleep) and individual (cognitive-behavioral or brief behavioral therapy for insomnia) interventions that can help.” Recognizing these interventions will be essential to ensuring of the best care for student-athletes.

According to Mykal Manswell, commitment to the complete success of the athletes advisor in clinical and sport psychology at UA and a former Division I athlete, as teams compete for conference or national championships against new opponents next year, they may be dealing with the pressure to make a deep impact in year one. This will also be a new stressor that student-athletes and sport psychology departments will have to deal with.

Increased pressure on sports psychology departments

Various roles are present in the Department of Sport Psychology. From a clinical perspective, there are sports psychologists and licensed professional counselors, and their work consists of the prevention and treatment of mental health problems.

“Prevention work can look like programming focused on learning about healthy coping skills, mindfulness, etc., while treatment is usually 1:1 confidential mental health therapy,” Clark said.

From a non-clinical standpoint, there are mental performance coaches and their importance lies in improving performance by teaching mental skills, consulting with coaches, and providing ways to improve cognitive elements of performance such as decision making and reaction time.

At UA, all four full-time providers work in the clinical and performance areas.

With this high demand and an array of factors to address, the sport psychology department may face increased pressure as the conference realignment takes place.

“I expect to see an increase in the provision of sports psych services, which in turn puts pressure on other elements of my role (if I spend more time in the clinical area, there is less time for performance issues). This may lead to expanding and hiring more vendors and/or changing how my time needs to be allocated,” Clark said.

Manswell said the UA department would have to “adapt to the conference’s new perspective on mental health support for student-athletes. They will also have to network with colleagues from over 12 schools, which is not easy.

Keeping up with the needs of athletes in different environments will be a challenge for the field in the coming years. Its evolution is becoming increasingly important, but the field has developed positively in recent years and shows great potential to continue to do so.

Evolution of sport psychology

In 2013, a task force was established by the NCAA which led to having a licensed mental health provider available to athletics departments as a best practice. Over the past 10 years, day-to-day sports psychology in college athletics has changed dramatically.

“Where once most of the work was 1:1 clinical [mental health] therapy, it is now standard practice for sports psychiatrists to be included in interdisciplinary meetings with physicians, athletic trainers, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, and academic support,” Clark said.

The tasks of the sports psyche have increased significantly. Clark said: “It is also more common for sports psychiatrists to attend training sessions, travel with teams and be involved in decisions with administrators.”

UA now has a staff of four full-time providers in addition to three interns and a network of providers in the community, according to Clark.

Manswell, who played college football in West Virginia Universitysaid his previous involvement in college athletics helps him relate to the lifestyle of the department’s current employees.

“As a support system, it allows us to destigmatize the negative narrative in athletics because our clinical team members are also former athletes.” Manswell said.

The growth of the department will be critical to Arizona Athletics’ transition to the Big 12. This will require student-athletes to compete against diverse and challenging competition, with travel schedules becoming increasingly cumbersome.

The consistency of the sport psychology department will help stabilize the ever-changing landscape of the NCAA. Despite the dominance of money in the collegiate athletic experience, student-athletes remain the ever-present priority for sport psychologists at the UA and across the country.


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