A look into the pressures of high school sports on student-athletes.
BY EMILY AYARS ’24, SAFIA MALHOTRA ’24 AND ADELAIDE PETRAS ’24
Upper Arlington High School has 33 varsity teams and 148 state championships and is ranked #85 of 998 in terms of best high schools for athletes in Ohio. With more sports programs than any other high school in Ohio, athletics play a large role in the Upper Arlington High School scene.
During the 2021-22 school year, 53% of students (1,389 students) participated in athletics at UAHS. As of the 2022-23 school year, 34% of students (650 students) have participated in athletics so far, with this data only including the fall season. Additionally, the athletic wing of the UAHS building is approximately 21% of the total square footage (84,000 out of 400,000 square feet), amassing a significant portion of the school overall. Athletic culture itself is quite prevalent in the UAHS community; many students find pride in their peers’ athletic success.
Athletics are complicated. There’s more to the life of a student-athlete than constant success and celebration, and many struggle to balance their massive commitment to their sports with the rest of their life. Students face enough pressure in high school as it is, without the pressure to exceed in yet another aspect of their lives. Upper Arlington has always held pride in its athletic success — but at what cost is the school maintaining that success?
A MENTAL GAME
Children are introduced to sports at a very young age, and are consistently told throughout their life that the physical activities build character and leadership skills. But as technique and competitiveness escalate, so does the pressure applied on athletes to perform.
“I don’t come across too many student athletes that are participating in sports just for fun,” Ohio State University sports psychologist Marcia Edwards said. “They seem to be so competitive, striving for perfection and afraid to make mistakes.”
This pressure of perfectionism can be alleviated by coaches, family members and most of all, the athletes themselves. Within sports at any level, there are many expectations and stressors to balance.
“Being an athlete comes with a certain level of pressure, internal and external,” Edwards said. “I think it is key to find balance and work to maintain balanced thoughts because when [our] thoughts or goals become too rigid we might encounter problems.”
Mental health often has a stigma among student-athletes. In many cases, this stigma is fueled primarily by the marginalization of athletes seeking help. This can stem from the anxiety of disappointing and failing teammates or coaches.
“There’s internal pressures that students have to do a lot of things right,” UAHS Student Life Director Spencer Smith said. “[As mental health] becomes more prevalent, I think it’s on us as adults and educators to help student athletes when they’re asking for it.”
Senior Leela Mullins, a volleyball player, had an experience of her own with interconnecting mental health and sports. As a junior, Mullins decided to take a step back from the sport to focus on herself and her academics.
“I was just having trouble with my mental health and volleyball was just causing me a lot of anxiety. I still am figuring out why, but I just didn’t want to go back,” she said. “But with talking to my mom and figuring stuff out, I was able to realize that it’s okay to just not do something because everyone thinks you do it.”
There is often a stigma surrounding mental health and student athletes, and there are procedures that can be taken to help reduce the toxicity within the concept. Coaches play an important role in a student-athlete’s life with the power to use their authority to generate change in behavior and technique.
“Sometimes coaches are so focused on winning, which is often how their job is defined, that they forget mental health equals performance,” a sports psychologist from The Ohio State University, Jennifer Carter, said.
Edwards adds to this sentiment, suggesting things coaches can do to help break the stigma and allow athletes to feel more comfortable in approaching others for help.
“I believe coaches could show more compassion. Let athletes know mistakes and setbacks happen and that is okay,” Edwards said. “Work to build resilient athletes who can learn from challenges and be okay with making mistakes or not being the best.”
The culture around student athletes has changed generationally as well. Mental health was not a prominent topic 40 years ago and that history also impacts how today’s athletes view the concept.
“Of course student athletes had mental health issues in the 1980s, but nobody discussed them. ‘Suck it up’ was a common mentality,” Carter said.
As a multi-sport athlete, Carter spent her high school years swimming and playing volleyball, on top of playing slow-pitch softball for two years and throwing shotput and discus for one.
“It was unheard of for high school teams to practice or compete outside of their competitive season, and athletes weren’t forced to specialize in one sport early on,” Carter said. “There seemed to be less pressure in high school sports then.”
Mental health is a key piece in athletes continuing their sports and the stigma surrounding it has proved to serve as a barrier for many individuals.
“Coaches should advocate for their athletes and their needs,” Edwards said. “And sometimes that includes allowing them to be in the moment and feel their emotions instead of telling them to suck it up.”
The commitment required of student-athletes to their sports extends past practices and games, often having a large impact on their lives outside of their sports. Time demands are a frequent source of stress for student-athletes, who often have to sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to fully commit to their sport.
“The pressure to sacrifice things in my life for sports is definitely there. I’ve definitely had to do that in my life a lot in the past and I’m sure as I continue I will have to do it more,” varsity girls soccer goalkeeper Sally Patton said. “The commitment of school soccer is quite a lot actually: practices almost every day after school, lifting before school and sometimes after, double headers with lifting and practice in one day, and then games every week. We probably practice five to six times a week, and sometimes in the beginning of the season we will have three or four games a week.”
Former wrestler and current varsity boys golfer Jack Mangas shares that he, too, experienced aspects of his life being negatively affected by his commitment to his sports.
“Last year… during golf season my schoolwork fell down a little bit because I was missing school to play golf and trying to stay at the top of my game and work on it, and schoolwork can falter because of that,” he said.
The balance of school life and athletic life is something many athletes struggle with. Mullins spoke to the difficulty of balancing her athletic life with her academic life.
“It’s actually really hard, especially senior year,” she said. “It’s really stressful. But honestly, I just try [to] plan each week ahead of time. So if I know I have practice instead of a game, I’ll have a couple extra hours and I can get some stuff [done] earlier in the week.”
This difficult balance is not an uncommon experience. Because of this, there are often ways of handling it and asking for help within the school.
“Balancing school and sports is actually very difficult,” Patton said. “I definitely struggle with it sometimes, but having one of my coaches also be a teacher here is really helpful because he always makes sure we’re up-to-date with our stuff. And if I really need help I know I can talk to any of my seniors.”
There are also pressures outside of academics that student-athletes struggle with. Physical health is an obvious priority within athletics that, at times, comes at a cost. Something that is often discussed is the culture surrounding weight in sports in which athletes are categorized based on their weight, such as wrestling.
Wrestler Daniel Jang shared his encounters with weight loss within the wrestling parameters and reflected on his experiences pertaining to weight loss in the past.
“I didn’t lose my weight the healthiest way, I guess,” he said. “I would skip a lot of meals. I would do really unhealthy things to lose weight, [trying not] to eat or drink the last two days leading up to weigh-ins, which, I mean, definitely wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Mangas states that, while he felt little pressure to lose or gain weight from his coaches and teammates, it was something he was conscious of.
“My parents did not want me to gain or lose a significant amount of weight and they would make sure that I was eating enough at all times,” he said. “Sometimes I would sacrifice what I would like to eat for dessert to stay at a certain weight.”
Jang reiterates that he feels little pressure from others to lose weight.
“No one ever forces another person to cut weight or lose an unhealthy amount of weight. Honestly, it’s all about the individual — how well he wants to do,” Jang said. “Like, I know I’m going to cut some weight just because I want to perform well. It’s my senior year and I want to do well in wrestling.”
However, not all aspects of the student-athlete life are particularly negative. Community is built within teams, and valuable lessons are taught through interactions with others that one may not get outside of sports.
“It’s given me more than I could ever give back. I know it’s kind of cliche and a lot of athletes say it, but I really believe it. I’ve made so many good friends off of wrestling,” Jang said. “It’s helped me come out of my shell, helped me open up as a person. It’s given me so many great role models to look up to, [and] it’s taught me the value of hard work and effort.”
And while sports can certainly be stressful, stress isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Depending on the situation, it can be rewarding or otherwise have a positive impact on one’s life. Senior Simone McCraw stated that this applied to her own experiences in UAHS athletics.
“I get stressed out at practice, when we’re doing a drill that I’m scared of messing up on, or during the season during games and stuff, but I also feel like it helps me if we have a hard practice or something — after it’s over, I feel accomplished,” McCraw said. “Even though in the moment it wasn’t very enjoyable, it just makes me feel like I’m improving — but in the moment it’s normally pretty stressful.”
Smith advises student-athletes to try to manage this stress by balancing their workload.
“I think they have to be intentional about what they decide to do… you have to take a look at your whole load and everything you want to do and be very intentional about not overdoing yourself because it’s impossible to do everything and not have stress, in my opinion,” Smith said. “And so I think what would be beneficial for students is to figure out what’s most important and then build around it, but also give yourself time to be a kid.”
CLOSE TO HOME
The emphasis placed on athletics in Upper Arlington has given the school a reputation for being competitive. High-level sports produce disciplined and talented athletes, but can also come with an overly competitive environment.
Students who participate in more individualized sports report feeling as though they are being pitted against their own teammates instead of other teams. McCraw, who participates in both lacrosse and cross country, shares this sentiment.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done a sport or known of a sport that makes you so competitive with your own teammates,” McCraw said. “Everyone is just trying to compete with each other, and it’s good to be competitive, but it’s to the point where everyone cares more about beating each other than other teams… Everyone’s just trying to secure their own spot on the [cross country] team.”
Junior Addie Darding, who participates in swimming and cheerleading, concurs.
“With swimming, sometimes that individuality makes you kind of lose sight of [the fact] that at the end of the day, we want to be a team that wins states,” she said. “And I think sometimes everyone gets a little bit sidetracked from that common goal and focuses on themselves, and it becomes a little bit isolating.”
However, not everyone sees internal competition on sports teams as a negative aspect, as it can motivate athletes to perform better. Mangas observes similar patterns on the golf team, but he points out that it may not be entirely detrimental.
“I’d say one thing about golf that might be slightly different than others is [that] you are directly competing against one another in almost every event,” Mangas said. “It’s not directly an antagonistic competition; it’s more of a competition to see who can play the best.”
Beyond intra-team competition, Upper Arlington’s competitiveness against other teams creates high expectations for athletes. This may lead some to have anxiety or stress in anticipation of sporting events or if they do not perform as well as expected.
“They’re pretty big on us trying to uphold our tradition of winning, especially after we won, like, five years in a row or something. And then we lost two years ago, in like the regional finals. We lost the championship last year,” McCraw said in reference to the lacrosse team. “It’s a lot of stress to know that we have to have a perfect tournament season, and it’s scary to think that if we mess up, we’re done.”
Junior Abbie Dunlap agrees that this issue is especially prominent in sports that are extremely competitive statewide, including lacrosse.
“There’s obviously going to be pressure and stress. It’s definitely one of the most competitive sports I’ve played at the high school because I played field hockey, and I played basketball. Both of those were relatively stressful, but it wasn’t as stressful as lacrosse, just because we are super good, and everybody’s kind of competing for a spot,” Dunlap said.
Ava Stummer, another member of the lacrosse team who is committed to Pennsylvania State, sees the high caliber of the team as motivation to improve.
“[The pressure] kind of makes us get better because everyone’s competitive,” she said. “But we all know we can like, be there for each other and support each other.”
Another potential stressor for anyone involved in high school athletics is the nationwide referee shortage. According to the National Federation of State High School Association, throughout the United States, approximately 50,000 referees and officials have been lost since the 2018-2019 sports season. This shortage has affected athletes at all levels, ranging from youth leagues to professional sports.
“There’s a generation of officials that are retiring or that, during COVID, just never came back. [Also], there’s a lack of supply of young people becoming officials. And so there’s this squeeze on officials,” Smith said.
The shortage can be attributed in part to an emotionally and even physically taxing work environment. Spectators often exhibit poor sportsmanship, yelling at officials and sometimes going as far as to assault them.
“There’s a little aspect of sportsmanship, fan interactions — just that culture piece of competition and sportsmanship where officials just don’t want to be screamed at or yelled at or questioned on every call,” Smith said.
Another possible cause of the shortage is a lack of fair pay. Referee salaries are currently on the rise, likely as an attempt to mitigate the referee problem. Smith says that the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) as a conference has addressed this issue by increasing rates for sports officials.
The official shortage has had a major impact on sports at UAHS, leading to the cancellation of numerous games. This creates scheduling issues and leads to immense pressure on coaches.
A CRUCIAL DECISION
Upper Arlington is home to countless sports teams, with 29 state titles in the last decade alone. These achievements attract colleges from all over the country and draw attention to sports like lacrosse and water polo, which have been extremely successful in the past few years.
This success leads many students to commit to play in college and take their careers beyond high school. But for some athletes, committing can feel forced upon them because of their sport and its success history.
“There’s definitely culture and tradition that’s set for certain sports over others that just have a track record of having incredible success,” Smith said. “So there might be some natural pressure or a standard, right? That is there just because it’s always been there.”
Mullins agrees that athletes tend to commit more frequently for some sports than for others.
“I think for certain sports, there definitely is [pressure],” Mullins said. “I honestly think, like, lacrosse. So many girls and boys will commit for [it]. So I feel like there’s definitely a pressure on those varsity teams.”
Dunlap verbally committed to continue her lacrosse career at the University of Louisville on Oct. 8th.
“It was really stressful,” Dunlap said. “Throughout the entire process… nobody really explains the process to you until you’re in it and then you kind of just have to make it your own.”
The procedure to commit is lengthy, spanning across months of emails and attending camps to get an audience with coaches. Having a support group to advocate for an athlete’s career proves to be a large help for individuals.
“I have a recruiting coach,” Dunlap said. “And she helped me literally the entire time. She would text me every day and be like, ‘Hey, like these are the coaches who are interested in you.’”
Patton, although not yet committed, is another athlete who is interested in furthering her athletic career in college.
“I decided to play [college soccer] because, as I’m getting through my high school experience, I realized I’m just not ready to quit playing yet,” she said. “I love the sport and I love playing for school. It’s so fun, and I have a family when I’m playing.”
Another factor in committing for athletics is the divisions. There are three NCAA divisions throughout colleges across the country: Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3 (D1, D2 and D3 respectively). D1 schools are widely considered to have the best athletic programs compared to D2 and D3 schools.
“There’s pressure to go D1,” McCraw said. “I feel like I thought that if I went like D2 or D3, then people would be like, ‘Oh, she’s only going D2 or D3,’ like, ‘she’s not going D1.’”
On top of these components, exactly when to commit is something else athletes take into consideration. Many choose to commit during the beginning of their senior year while others pursue early commitment and can commit as early as their freshman year. But is there an emphasis on committing as early as possible?
“Yes and no,” Dunlap said. “I chose to commit [early] because… [Louisville] had everything that I was looking for.”
But for many individuals, commitment to a school for their athletic careers is not a priority. Mullins, for example, has decided not to continue her volleyball career beyond high school.
“I think I just want to focus on establishing myself at a college rather than putting all my time into college sport because that’s a lot,” she said.
Most student athletes end up following Mullins’s path, by choosing to prioritize their academics over attempting to balance them with a sport.
The number of pressures regarding college commitment is large and scholarships factor into that as well. For student athletes looking to participate in college athletics, scholarships can be an athlete’s goal but in order to receive one, they must be good enough both academically and athletically.
“In youth sports, I believe we overemphasize outcomes like college scholarships,” Carter said. “Only 1% of high school athletes earn a college athletic scholarship.”
Despite all these factors, sports continue to play a large role in the world. Many people use these activities as an opportunity to gather and socialize but there are prices that the athletes must pay at their expense.
“Point is, there is no one sport and no one factor that contributes to toxicity in sports,” Edwards said. “It’s a multifaceted issue.”