UNK Athletics making mental health, wellness a top priority for student-athletes
KEARNEY – Bailee Sterling is an elite athlete.
She’s 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 senior from Kearney has always focused on her nutrition and training, yet she was hesitant to address another important area – mental health.
Sterling uses the word “stubborn,” but in reality, her initial thoughts about counseling are common among college students, particularly athletes.
I don’t need to see a therapist.
My problems aren’t big enough to seek help.
I can figure this out on my own.
Talking about your feelings is a sign of weakness.
“I’ve known I’ve wanted to see someone for a long time,” Sterling said. “I think it’s just taken me time to get comfortable and realize, ‘OK, now you can go.’”
Since the beginning of the fall semester, Sterling has been meeting regularly with Kiphany Hof, associate director of counseling at UNK. They talk about a wide range of topics, from athletics and academics to everyday life – whatever is on Sterling’s mind.
“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.”
Hof, a licensed mental health practitioner, started partnering with UNK Athletics in January for that exact reason. She spends six hours a week in the Health and Sports Center – time dedicated specifically to serving Loper student-athletes.
“They’re a unique population,” Hof said. “Unless you’re an athlete, you don’t really understand all the different pressures they’re facing. While their sport consumes most of their time, there are also all the other pieces of being a young adult, too.”
On top of the academic and personal challenges college students face, athletes also must meet expectations tied to their sport – practices, workouts, travel, games and the pressure to win. It can be a lot to handle.
Colleges and universities across the country have seen elevated 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 disconnected from their coaches and teammates.
“Because mental health is in such a crisis state, you’re seeing more athletic departments getting involved in how to address this and provide additional support,” Hof said.
At UNK, mental wellness is part of the athletic department’s overall mission. It’s 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 Marc Bauer. “We’re really taking a holistic approach that addresses our athletes’ physical, mental and social needs.”
Loper student-athletes complete a quarterly performance survey that includes questions related to mental health. Based on those results, some students may be contacted and referred to Hof and the UNK Counseling services. All of the sessions are voluntary and confidential.
Sterling, who meets with Hof outside the dedicated athletics hours, 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 go back. But have an open mind going into it.”
In addition to the one-on-one counseling sessions, Hof is also part of a unique program launched this semester by UNK head women’s basketball coach Carrie Eighmey.
Like many other coaches, Eighmey was seeing more and more players stop by her office to discuss issues related to mental health.
“We felt like this was an area where our student-athletes needed resources and needed guidance,” she said. “They were coming in individually, believing they were the only one feeling that way, but actually many of their teammates were experiencing the same thing.”
Instead of handing them a phone number for counseling services, Eighmey decided to take a different approach.
“Let’s talk about this as a team and let’s normalize some of the things you’re feeling so we can work through this together, we can help each other and we can learn about this together.”
Eighmey partnered with Hof, dietitian Kaiti George and sports psychologist and psychology professor Krista Fritson to develop curriculum that addresses health and wellness from multiple angles. The basketball team meets four times a month to discuss a specific topic. During the first three weeks, Hof, 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 we can possibly be, and focusing on the whole person is such a huge part of that,” Eighmey said. “I’m not sure you can achieve it without focusing on the whole person.”
So far, the response from her players has been overwhelmingly positive.
“They love it,” Eighmey said. “They know that we’re invested in them as a person and they want to be better equipped with the tools and strategies to handle the things that come at them. I think they’re really appreciative of it because they see how it’s positively impacting all areas of their life – as a student, as an athlete, as a friend, as a member of our campus environment and the community of Kearney.”
The program has become a pilot project for the entire athletic department, which is recording the sessions to share with other coaches.
“I’m hoping it continues to develop into new areas and new ideas that other coaches take off with,” Bauer said.