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New coordinator aims to provide student athletes a safe space to discuss mental health

By Julia Nightengale, The Sunflower, original article link

Courtesy of Brianna Ward

Being a student athlete involves many hours of hard work and dedication. Just like many students on campus— student athletes are struggling with mental health due to the pressure and the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why the position of Athlete Mental Health Coordinator was introduced.

Brianna Ward began in this position in August of 2020. She said that it has been challenging to begin a brand new role while being in the middle of a pandemic.

“I feel in my perfect dream world of me imagining my dream position starting, I wanted to be able to go to practices and events a little bit more, I didn’t really have the opportunity to do that in the fall,” Ward said. “It’s weird being a psychologist and people not knowing me … Hopefully, I will be able to do that a little bit more next year.”

Ward has a long history of working with athletes. She started doing research projects centering around sports psychology when she was getting her master’s. When she went to the University of Iowa for her PhD, she had the opportunity to do a practicum in the athletics department.  

Through this, she was able to work with individuals on all spectrums of the sports field.

“I was like, ‘this is what I want to do, I feel that I fit in well here, I feel like I can understand the culture and dynamics of the athletic  department,’ which is so important being a sports psychologist,” Ward said.

Ward said while her position as an individual therapist is extremely important to her, she wants students to know that they can come to her outside of scheduled appointments.

“Sometimes it’s nice to have that touchpoint to kind of get to know your counselor a little bit more, it seems a little bit less scary to dive into therapy with someone,” Ward said. “Therapy is really when you are most vulnerable, and you’re sharing a whole bunch of things you might not necessarily share with other people.”

Coaches and athletic staff can come to office hours as well, to consult on different situations that might come up with the team.  This might include being concerned about an athletes performance, an issue within the team, or they might be having difficult conversations such as scholarships being decreased due to budget cuts during COVID-19.

“Sometimes coaches come in to talk to me about how to navigate some of those difficult conversations to make sure that they are supporting their athlete while maybe delivering some pretty tough news,” Ward said.

Ward said understanding the culture of athletics is important because there is so much that goes into being a student athlete and creating that experience for a student athlete from a staff standpoint. On top of the normal struggles of adjusting to college life, athletes also have to adjust to a new practice load, different coaches, and new workouts.

“It’s really important to have someone to navigate that understands those experiences and have someone specialized in student athletes,” Ward said. “Similarly, the pressure of being a student athlete can be a lot. Constantly being under scrutiny, essentially and being televised. Everyone kind of knows how you performed over the weekend, knows if your team lost in a big game over the weekend.”

Ward said that athletes can feel like they are under a microscope, and that pressure can be a lot to manage when they are only 18-23 years old.  Being an athlete is essentially a full-time job, so time management is a priority for student athletes.

“I think just having staff and other students support them and try to understand their journey and listen to them … Learning more about them, learning about what it’s like to be a student athlete,” Ward said.

Ward said that while it has been difficult transitioning into this position in the time of COVID, she is excited to see what the future holds for this position.

“I am excited to continue here and see how those relationships can continue to foster and grow,” Ward said.

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