Head Women’s Basketball Coach Colleen Ames speaking to her players during a game. Photo courtesy of Mount Saint Mary College on Flickr.

By: Emily Gursky

Female collegiate athletes tend to juggle a lot, and they tend to do it well. They’re often paying close attention to how their body is reacting to intense training and competing for their sport. But there are several non-physical factors that come into play when they are competing that are too often overlooked and can sometimes lead to burnout. 

Over the past 50 years, female participation in sports has steadily increased, and thus resulted in more of an interest in understanding the psychology of female athletes. New York University published a study in 2020, documenting the various aspects of mental health and how they impact female collegiate athletes. 

Based on their findings, mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and burnout are particularly common in female athletes. 

Within the general population, the study reported that “females have been shown to have higher rates of these disorders than their male counterparts.” In fact, females suffer from depression and anxiety at “roughly twice the rate of males.” Compound this stress with the pressures of academics and athletics, and one could imagine the significant toll this could take on a female college athlete. 

Colleen Ames, head coach of Women’s Basketball at Mount Saint Mary College, feels that a lack of breaks greatly contributes to the side effects that categorize burnout. Ames finds that that when her athletes start to feel signs of burnout, it’s crucial to let themselves breathe and say, “it’s just a game, I’m doing this for fun.” 

Annie Keenan, one of Ames’ senior players, has experienced this kind of stress balancing basketball with academics. As a nursing major she certainly has a lot on her plate, so it helps to have someone to lean on at times; she tends to find a lot of support in Ames as a coach. 

Keenan said, “I know I can always go to my coach and talk it out with her, and we can do something about it.” This kind of support and open communication is essential to the well-being of athletes, especially those who experience any degree of burnout. 

NYU’s report states that “athletes often under report psychological issues,” which makes being able to recognize physical signs of burnout all the more important. One tell-tale physical sign of burnout is fatigue. 

Nicole Cervone, former lacrosse player and President of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) at MSMC, says that she’s seen a pattern of fatigue on her team every year since she started playing lacrosse here. For Cervone and her teammates, mid-season is when they usually find themselves hitting a “wall” and experiencing signs of burnout. 

“You’ll see a lot of girls getting sick and getting injuries,” said Cervone. “I do think it’s because of us pushing ourselves too hard and getting too stressed.” 

When this happens, she argues it’s sometimes best to just “forget everything else” and let your sport become an outlet for stress. 

Societal pressures can be another source of background noise or burnout for female athletes. This pressure is often felt through social media exposure. While there is limited research on this topic thus far, it was predicted that “it will be important for trainers, coaches and medical staff to understand how interactions with social media might affect physical and mental/emotional health and sports performance” of athletes. 

Ames feels as though female athletes are held to a different standard than male athletes, because they are expected to fit into a certain “role” in society; she argues this often comes with double standards as well. She also recognizes the role she plays in the mental health of her athletes and stresses the importance of telling them not to compare themselves with any standards they see on social media. “Don’t be afraid to go against the norm,” says Ames. “Say what you want to say.” 

Overall though, the MSMC community does “a pretty good job” at not recognizing double standards that may exist on social media, at other colleges or on other sports teams, according to Keenan. She says her basketball team does what they need to do and stigmas don’t seem to bother them too much, which is what she admires about them. 

“They continue to stride,” says Keenan. “Everyone on the team is like, ‘hey, let’s just be better than the guys.'” 

Ultimately, supporting female athletes and preventing burnout comes down to having “the right attitude,” says Cervone. “It’s not, ‘play like a girl.‘ Girls can play just as well as the guys.” 

Here’s the bottom line: there are many components that make up a successful female student athlete, and all athletes could experience burnout. It’s important for them to not shy away from that stress or see it as just part of the “grind.” Recognizing this can be the first key to preventing burnout and maintaining physical and mental wellness as an athlete.