The Next Big Thing in College Athletics

This fall has been a remarkable season for Princeton Athletics. Men’s and Women’s cross country earned bids to the NCAA Championship event in Madison, Wisc. Field hockey reached the Final Four in Louisville, Kentucky. Football is on the verge of an outright Ivy Championship and its first undefeated season since 1964. Men’s soccer won the Ivy League, and the women’s team made it to the first-round of NCAAs. Volleyball, too, is looking for a likely at-large bid to the big post-season tournament.

All this success might leave fans and other students wondering, what put Princeton athletes over the edge this season? Correlation does not equal causation, but there’s no doubt student-athletes have reaped the benefits of the Princeton Tiger Performance program (PTP). Tiger Performance is a new arm of the athletic department that “aims to create the right environment and educational platforms to help student-athletes reach peak performance in athletics, in academics, and in life.”

Jason Gallucci, who was named the university’s Director of Performance in January 2017, says: “Our program places cutting edge performance technology in strength and conditioning, athletic medicine, sports nutrition, sports psychology, and leadership development into an environment that values education and growth.”

Student-athletes have seen and felt the benefits of TPT already. There’s new fueling stations where they can pick snacks and chocolate milk; there’s training for captains and emerging leaders; and new and better equipment across the department. But what student-athletes likely needed and will benefit from most is a new in-house sports psychologist.

Dr. Julie Amato officially stepped into this role at Princeton in August, but began working with Tigers during the 2014-15 women’ ice hockey season. The team was very talented that year, she says, but the coaching staff recognized her help with mental skills as something that helped their team claim its first-ever Ivy crown.

Amato says access to a psychologist is something student-athletes “really need.” She and her colleague Mike Gross will be on staff to help Princeton athletes work through what they can do to improve their game, but also to address athlete mental health in general.

Last Week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the impact of sports psychologists in college athletics. Students today are reporting depression and anxiety at levels never seen before. Moreover, varsity athletes cope with those issues while under a spotlight and balancing studies with time-intensive training. This is where mental-health services can play an integral role in major-college athletics.

“The culture of toughness, and just suck it up—that is increasingly going away,” said Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, speaking with the Wall Street Journal. Not only are athletic departments realizing the rising need for mental-health services, he said, but “it’s increasingly recognized that mental-health symptoms and disorders have an adverse impact on performance. So there’s a dual incentive.”

Even students outside the athletic department recognize the impact psychologists can have. They say there’s a perception that lots of student-athletes are depressed, which is not surprising given the college athletics’ coverage in the media. Last January, there was the death by suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski. He was on track to be the Cougars’ starter this season. Today, his team is ranked eighth in college football’s Top 25. ESPN’s Kate Fagan investigated and wrote a book detailing the struggles of Madison Holleran, a track and field athlete who committed suicide during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014. From the outside, it is nearly impossible to understand why a student-athlete with such a bright future would choose to take his or her own life. But as the saying goes, what we can see is just the tip of the iceberg.

Are there people who can get in on the inside and understand the underlying travails of life as a student-athlete? Yes. These people are sports psychologists: mental health professionals with an eye for student-athletes, who are at risk more now than ever.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Princeton University