ERIC Identifier: ED475387
Publication Date: 2003-06-00
Author: Watson, Joshua C.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services
Overcoming the Challenges of Counseling College Student Athletes. ERIC/CASS
Introduction College student athletes have long been the most recognized,
yet unofficial, special population on college campuses nationwide (Valentine & Taub, 1999). Misconceptions and stereotypical viewpoints have hindered
the development of effective counseling interventions with this population.
Oftentimes, student athletes are seen as performers who are placed in public
arenas to have their successes praised and their failures criticized (Valentine
& Taub, 1999). Ferrante, Etzel, and Lantz (1996) noted that the general
view of college athletes is that they are over privileged, pampered, lazy,
out-of-control, and primarily motivated to attend school for the sole purpose
of participating in intercollegiate athletics. These misconceptions cloud
the fact that student athletes are individuals with problems like everyone
else, yet they are not receiving the potential benefits of counseling services.
Recent findings have shown that this is more of an issue than originally
estimated (Maniar, Curry, Sommers-Flanagan, & Walsh, 2001). In fact,
researchers have shown that student athletes are not only hesitant to seek
help from a counselor, but they are also reluctant to take advantage of
sport psychology services (Brewer, Van Raalte, Petipas, Bachman, & Weinhold, 1998).
STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
Researchers have suggested that 10-15 percent of American college student
athletes are dealing with issues significant enough to warrant the need
for professional counseling services (Ferrante, et al., 1996; Parham, 1993).
Current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) statistics approximate
that over 361,000 student athletes are participating in collegiate sports.
Therefore, approximately 35,000-50,000 student athletes are facing troubling
issues in their lives that might warrant counseling assistance. Many of
these issues are no different than those faced by other college students.
Student athletes attend college with the same academic, emotional, and
personal goals and concerns as other college students (Ferrante, et al.,
1996). One noticeable difference, however, is that college athletes also
cope with additional influences that impact their cognitive, social, moral,
educational, and psychosocial development. Although college counseling
centers are available, student athletes have traditionally chosen to seek
help from other sources such as coaches, teammates, family, and friends
(Selby, Weinstein, & Bird, 1990). College counselors need to become
aware of the many barriers that influence a student athlete's decision
to seek help outside of the counseling center. Knowledge of these barriers
can help counselors better serve this population.
BARRIERS TOWARD SEEKING COUNSELING SERVICES
Barriers toward seeking counseling can be either internal (personal attributes)
or external (situational pressure) in nature. Internal Barriers
Traditionally student athletes have been raised in an environment that
stresses the importance of resiliency and self-reliance (Etzel, Ferrante
& Pinkney, 1991). The good of the team or the overall athletic performance
takes precedence over personal problems (Etzel, 1989). This mentality may
lead to the onset of barriers to help-seeking behavior. These barriers
include a win-at-all-costs philosophy and the social stigma associated
with seeking help.
Win-At-All-Costs Philosophy. Many student athletes have functioned throughout
their athletic careers under the assumption that winning and peak performance
are the ultimate goals of athletic competition. Student athletes are rewarded
for their accomplishments on the playing field. Admitting personal needs
or issues could conceivably damage their chances to succeed by weakening
their self-efficacy in their ability to perform, damaging the level of
trust established with their teammates, reducing playing time, or weakening
their coach's confidence in their ability to perform (Etzel, Pinkney &
Social Stigma. For most students, seeking help is largely an anonymous
act. This is not so, however, for the highly recognized student athlete
(Etzel et al., 1991). Many college student athletes enjoy a sense of "celebrity
status" on campus and may not want to be seen at a counseling center for
fear it may jeopardize their image as "heroes" by revealing a perceived
need for help (Etzel et al., 1991). In a study of students' attitudes and
expectations about sport psychology (Linder, Pillow & Reno, 1989),
male and female undergraduate students rated case study athletes lower
in terms of prestige if they were said to be seeking counseling services.
Therefore, student athletes may rationalize that potential benefits of
seeking help are less than negative consequences of a tarnished image and,
subsequently, do not seek counseling services.
Forces beyond the control of student athletes also may contribute to
the underutilization of counseling services. External barriers to counseling
services come from the athletic department and its personnel, university
administration, and from team commitments.
Barriers from the Athletic Department. Intercollegiate athletics have
been described as a closed system within the institution of the university
(Ferrante et al., 1996). Many athletic departments see themselves as independent
entities, separate from the rest of the university. Some maintain that
athletic departments, especially well-known departments, are in fact independent
on- campus businesses that have little or no connection to other functional
activities of their school. Such an independent view can be adopted by
student athletes and may inadvertently lead them to ignore available campus
services and look instead to athletic staff and teammates for needed support
(Ferrante et al., 1996).
Those who work with student athletes may not be appropriately trained
to handle normal developmental issues. Many of the individuals assigned
to help student athletes come from physical education, education, sports
medicine, or business backgrounds (Etzel et al., 1994). They do not have
the counseling or psychological training necessary to help student athletes
with personal, social, and educational concerns. Brooks, Etzel, and Ostrow
(1987) found that the majority of professionals who work with student athletes
were former college student athletes whose sole responsibilities were to
maintain academic eligibility and enhance sport performance. As a result,
student athletes may not be aware of the range of services available across
Barriers from the University. Barriers at the institutional level may
inhibit the help-seeking behavior of student athletes. Institutions may
assume a cautious role and choose not to offer additional support services
to their student athletes for fear of violating NCAA sanctions. The perception
of student athletes as an over privileged minority has many institutions
cautious that they not be viewed as providing too many benefits to student
athletes. Universities frequently act under the assumption that the individual
athletic programs will handle issues and concerns of athletes.
Additionally, if an athletic program is successful, the university may
be hesitant to deal with student athletes' problems, assuming that interventions
will only serve to create adverse reactions from students, alumni, and
fans. Supporters of the program may choose to ignore problems when the
team is winning. Any programming additions may be construed as disturbing
the "winning formula" already in place. If the program is unsuccessful,
university personnel might try to distance themselves from the negative
situation, fearful that any negative publicity placed on the athletic program
would carry over to the university at large (Etzel et al., 1994). Both
circumstances create situations where student athletes are unable to obtain
the services they may need.
Team Commitments. Practice and competition drastically reduce the amount
of free time the student athlete has available for accessing needed services
(Etzel et al., 1991). NCAA regulations allow up to 20 hours per week for
activities associated with participation in an intercollegiate sport. This
is on top of the demands academic schedules place on the student. Student
athletes are unable to sacrifice athletic or academic time to seek help
for personal problems and often, by default, turn to their coaches and
teammates for the help and support they need.
IMPLICATIONS FOR COUNSELORS
In dealing with college student athletes, it is often necessary for the
counseling professional to be proactive. A working knowledge of barriers
that might factor into a student athletes' decision to seek counseling
can help counselors better respond to the unique challenges and concerns
of this population. Counselors can help student athletes overcome
internal barriers to seeking help by promoting the connection between mental
and physical health. Individuals who enjoy optimal mental health will be
able to perform better by being able to manage stress and concentrate more
on their performance (Vandervoot & Skorikov, 2002). Counselors can
also conduct sessions in or near athletic facilities where student athletes
can access services privately. They may also work with teams directly by
attending practices or designated team meetings.
Examples of how counselors can overcome internal barriers to student
athletes' seeking help include gaining knowledge of the collegiate athletic
structure and adding clinic hours to accommodate student athletes' schedules.
By learning the culture of collegiate athletics, counselors can better
understand the demands placed on student athletes, thus gaining their trust
and acceptance (Broughton, 2001).
Because many student athletes are reluctant to use a student mental
health service and seeking help is contrary to their perception of themselves
as independent and self-reliant, there may be an increased risk of premature
termination (Pinkerton, et al., 1989). The counselor should be sure to
focus on several areas key to successful therapy: 1) establishing rapport
with the student athlete helps develop a sense of team that translates
well into their everyday lives, 2) encouraging students to share their
problems and openly engage in session should be an early goal, and 3) stressing
confidentiality due to the factors previously mentioned. Creative counselors
will find ways to overcome the barriers mentioned in this digest, making
counseling a more attractive alternative to many student athletes.
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