I first picked up a hockey stick ten years ago, with a gum shield moulded around my pink braces and socks that slipped down my legs every few minutes. Within the year, I was playing four or five times a week during the season and spent summer counting the days until September. Hockey became a defining feature of my life and personality. It was a no-brainer that I would continue the sport at university.
So, for the last two years, I have played hockey for my university club. It is big, successful and competitive. As a nervous fresher, the hockey club provided me with a ready-made pool of friends, an outlet for my anxiety and a regularity and structure that was missing from much of my university life. We trained twice a week, played twice a week, had Wednesday nights out and team bonding nights in. I spent more time with my teammates than I did in lectures — and having spoken to students playing other sports at other universities, this domination of university life by sport is not unusual.
Sport requires dedication and effort, but the hassle involved — early mornings, scarred knees and soggy training sessions — should, and usually is, outweighed by the countless benefits. There is endless evidence that exercise is a wonderful preventative of and treatment for mental ill health. The endorphins released can help lift depression and anxiety, while successes and friendships can boost self-esteem and wellbeing. The NHS, along with charities such as Mind and the Mental Health Foundation all recommend exercise as a treatment and preventative of mental ill health, with suggestions ranging from a brisk walk with a friend to a sweaty Zumba class.
The impact of exercise on mental health is especially crucial to university students. The number of students disclosing mental health issues has been rising year on year and several universities — most recently Bristol — have experienced several student suicides in a short space of time. While the increase in disclosures has most likely been boosted by the gradual lifting of the stigma regarding mental health, the parallel increase in suicides would suggest that it is not just awareness of mental health that is increasing, but also serious mental health crises themselves.
University is a complicated and complex period of anyone’s life and initially, many people find solace in their sport. But university sports clubs are not without their problems. While the drinking culture at universities might be loosening its grip, university sports teams continue to hit the headlines for sexism, bullying, homophobia and a fetishisation of binge drinking.
I should put my hands up. I have never been explicitly pressured into drinking, although it is difficult to stay sober and not feel out of place on a sports night out. But several of the students I spoke to, including a rugby player and a cheerleader, described instances where members who did not drink were shunned by other players, while others ended up so out of it they endangered themselves and others.
Alcohol might be the most obvious way in which a sports team might damage someone’s mental health, but it is not the only one. University level sport is competitive, demands dedication and requires sacrifices. A lacrosse player described the intense stress she felt before every training session in case it resulted in her being dropped from the team, while several students reported playing through injuries, missing deadlines and ignoring signs of burnout for fear of a dressing down by their coach. While a yoga class or a jog might be relaxing and endorphin- releasing, some of the students I spoke to gave the impression that their training and competing schedule was creating nothing but problems for their mental health.
Anyone who has ever read a ‘day in the life’ article of an elite athlete will know that beyond straightforward training sessions, high-level sport requires gym sessions, recovery sessions, a tailored diet and occasionally, endless measurements of weight, body fat and so on. And while a rigorous schedule and potential obsession with physical fitness might be manageable under the right supervision and as part of a full-time job, university athletes can sometimes fall foul to this obsessive lifestyle armed only with google and hearsay.
Mental health problems such as anxiety and eating disorders are frequently triggered in response to a feeling of losing control. At eighteen, being presented with the freedom — and expectation — to do, eat and be whatever you want can be overwhelming. Throw in an expectant coach, a problematic drinking culture and an environment full of athletic, successful peers and it is not altogether surprising that some students develop an unhealthy relationship with their sport.
For many students, myself included, university sport was a wonderful opportunity and a foundational part of the university experience. But in an environment where students continue to be failed by university pastoral systems, sport, which should be a balm to stress and anxiety, can morph into something far more sinister. Coaches, captains and organisation such as British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) need to do more than simply issue statements and form committees. A cultural shift is required and universities have to recognise that for the vast majority of universities’ sports players, the aim is not international glory but simply some space away from the stresses that come with teetering on the edge of adulthood.