Growing research supports the importance of sports psychology, especially in schools and athletics programs with high performance expectations.
At UNC, a Power Five school that adheres each team to the standard of the national competition, creating mental health programs for athletes is especially important for their overall well-being.
Jenny Shannon, director of the Carolina Athletics Achievement Mental Health and Psychology Program, is one of three full-time providers at UNC, a pioneer in the athletics department’s approach to sports psychology. Shannon, along with Brendan Carr and Bradley Huck, are developing programs to tackle mental illness within the UNC athletic community.
When Shannon was in high school, an injury that ended her career took her out of the world of competitive gymnastics and she became a coach. An undergraduate course at the University of Arizona called “Psychology of Excellence” introduced her to the field of sports psychology, and she noticed its relevance through her own experience in sports and her time with players.
While Shannon acknowledges that UNC provides an “exciting athletic culture to be a part of,” she is also aware of the impact of high athletic expectations combined with academic rigor.
“I think the other side of that can be a lot of pressure and sometimes you’re very public,” Shannon said. “There are many expectations. It’s a difficult life, it really is. “
The impact of the work of Shannon and her colleagues in the sports field reveals a key gap in the field of sports medicine when it comes to mental health, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rising senior volleyball player Parker Austin saw life as an athlete at UNC before and after COVID-19 and said being an athlete during the pandemic was an isolating experience.
“It’s this endless cycle of waking up, training, going to training, going home, bathing and going to bed,” Austin said. “It’s just this chronic cycle where you kind of get stuck and you don’t leave your room and you just can’t see other people. It affected me quite a bit.”
AMP has grown exponentially over the past few years, expanding from one to three full-time providers. According to Shannon, most of the work she and her colleagues do involves interacting with athletes one-on-one, but there are also many new initiatives that aim to encourage more peer leadership in sports teams themselves.
UNC head hockey coach Karen Shelton said Shannon’s work with her team was “outstanding”.
Shannon hosts weekly 30-minute meetings with the team, providing a safe space to discuss topics such as sports performance and social and team issues.
“It gives everyone a role in the team,” Shelton said. “No matter what your position, you have a voice. I think this is one of the biggest things, but also productivity. If you don’t have a good game, you have a tool or something you can think of that can draw you back. ”
Shannon works directly with a number of UNC athletic teams through sessions, contacts and programming. She says there is also a newfound focus on training coaches so that they can be better prepared when mental health problems arise in their teams.
Another key aspect of integrating sports psychology into the UNC Department of Sports Medicine is the effort to destigmatize the discussion of performance issues and stress.
“Mental health is health,” Shannon said. “It’s not separate from, it’s just part of your health. I think one of the most important things we can do is deal with it just as we treat physical health. Get the coaches to mention it and talk about it. Have athletic coaches and team doctors check mental health along with physical health. Let the athletes be ready to talk to each other about it. “
By ensuring that players feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their coaching staff and peers, Shannon and her team can collectively develop a safer space for UNC athletes.
As AMP grows, three full-time providers may not be suitable for a large population of athletes. Some expressed concerns that the number of providers did not meet the increased demand for mental health services.
“It’s so great to see that the UNC as a whole is beginning to destigmatize mental health,” said Maddie Pry, an assistant to UNC women’s soccer volunteer and rising teenager. “We are talking more about this and we are encouraging people to get help. But again, we have three full-time sports psychologists for more than 800 athletes, which, of course, will create waiting lists. ”
However, the availability of an extensive waiting list underscores the importance of Shannon’s work in the UNC athletic community and shows that AMP is a program that UNC must continue to develop.
“The impact they have on athletes, now removed and future athletes, will be huge,” Austin said. “I’m just excited to see how it continues to grow and how it can continue to help students because it’s really so important.”
Shelby Swanson contributed to the reporting of this story.