How to take care of your mind and body as a college student-athlete
by Maggie Jordan
Transitioning from high school to college athletics can be an emotional minefield. You’re navigating a new environment, need to find your place on a new team, and may struggle to balance new academic and athletic expectations. It’s a lot to take on, not to mention physically exhausting.
In college, you may also be responsible for making food decisions for the first time, and as an athlete, the emphasis on the body and pressure to perform can manifest in harmful ways. This guide will provide some tips for student athletes to help themselves and their teammates compete at the highest level while maintaining nutritional and emotional wellness.
1. Embrace the fact that food is fuel
It’s a simple fact that the food you put into your body becomes the fuel that drives you through tough practices and daily life activities. When you deny your body sufficient fuel, you will be unable to train and compete to the best of your abilities. You’ll feel fatigued, your immune system will be comprised, and you won’t recover as quickly between practices.
While exact intake requirements vary by individual, between sports, and throughout the training cycle, it’s important to recognize that athletes have different nutritional needs than their non-athlete peers. Learn to listen to your body and eat when you’re hungry, rather than focusing on caloric intake. A nutritionist can help outline a personalized nutrition plan to fuel your body for peak performance.
2. Don’t forget to schedule meals
When you’re constantly running between practice, class, labs, the library, the weight room, and volunteering off campus, it can be tempting to put off meals or skip them altogether. It’s crucial to find time to eat-- when you have double practices, lifting, and injury rehab, a granola bar and greek yogurt for lunch is just not going to cut it.
Carry food on you all. of. the. time. Build your meal schedule around practices, including getting something in your stomach before early morning practice, even if it’s half a banana and a few sips of gatorade. Make sure you’re planning recovery food, too. If you can’t head straight to the dining hall after practice, chug a chocolate milk or protein shake as soon as you’re done practicing. Your body will thank you later.
3. Discover foods that make you excited about eating
One of the hardest adjustments to eating in college is learning to love the dining hall. When you cycle through the same tired combinations every day, it’s easy to eat less and less, not due to purposeful restriction-- just boredom.
Try out a new section of the dining hall you’ve never visited. Take a chance on a food you’ve never tried before. Bring your own condiments to spice things up. Treat yourself to the occasional off-campus meal. If you have food allergies or specific dietary needs, it may make sense to go off meal plan. Perhaps several of your teammates can go off meal plan together and take turns organizing potlucks, so you still get group meals and lessen the burden of cooking.
The more you look forward to and enjoy eating, the easier it is to intake enough fuel.
4. Expect your body to change shapes and sizes throughout college
For many student-athletes, college is the first time you have mandatory weightlifting.
It’s natural to see your body change because you’re pushing it in new ways. Rather than fixating on the number on a scale, observe how much stronger your legs are from all those front squats, and how they power you through tougher practices.
Your body size and shape may also fluctuate throughout the year differently than it did in highschool. This is totally normal. The off-season is a time to recover and start prepping for another year of intense training. Take the time to let your body rest, keep fueling, and trust that you’ll be stronger than ever by the time competition season rolls around again.
5. Develop outlets for managing stress
The pressures of college, especially as a student-athlete, can get really intense. Early on in the semester, establish positive self-care routines and a plan for how you’ll handle high-stress periods. Carve out space in your schedule for whatever makes you feel good-- whether that’s movie and board game nights with teammates, exploring coffee shops off-campus, creative hobbies, or just 30 minutes every night to relax, reflect, and prepare for the next day.
6. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else
As an underclassmen, it’s easy to compare everything that you’re doing to upperclassmen to try and fit in. No one’s body is the same and no one has the same nutritional needs. Let your body be the guide for what’s best for you.
If you’re sick, rest. If you’re injured, rest. Pushing your body to a breaking point will not make you a better athlete. Don’t forget that your teammates care about you as a person more than as an athlete.
7. Encourage positive dialogue within your team
One of the best things about college athletics is that you’re constantly surrounded by teammates who are navigating the same challenges and facing the same fears side by side. If you’re concerned about how your body is changing or wondering how to build healthy meals at the dining hall, chances are, one of your teammates is, too.
Talk to them. Build each other up. If you hear a teammate commenting on another teammate’s body, gently call them in. Focus on compliments that acknowledge personal, academic, or athletic strengths, not body appearance. And never discuss what someone is or isn’t eating in front of the team or behind their back.
Every team member, no matter what year they are, has the ability to generate a culture change. If your team glorifies unhealthy behaviors like not getting enough sleep, limiting food intake, or objectifying other athletes, you can create a change in dialogue and cause a ripple effect that positively impacts your team culture for years to come.
8. Look out for each other
Teammates are often the first people to notice when someone is struggling. If you hear a teammate continually making self-deprecating comments or you notice changes in eating behavior, like withdrawing from the team during meal time, changing the amount or types of food they eat, or not attending team meals at all, it may be cause for concern.
Let your teammates know you care about them. Sometimes just knowing that someone sees that you’re hurting is enough to empower change. It’s equally important to acknowledge that college students are not mental health professionals and you should not feel responsible for the wellbeing of a teammate. Create a culture within your team where asking for professional help is not stigmatized, but encouraged.
9. Utilize your resources
Make sure you take advantage of all that your school has to offer, including self-care resources and support systems. Many schools have an on-campus nutritionist, as well as free counseling services, peer advisors, and academic and student life deans.
If you’re struggling to find your way, talk to your coach or athletic trainers. They can likely point you in the right direction, whether that means chatting about your training plan and nutritional needs or finding the right support office on campus.
College athletics are hard, but you’re not alone. If you’re considering seeking off campus support in Rhode Island or Boston, check out Zencare.co for quality vetted therapists, psychiatrists, and dietitians.
Maggie Jordan is Zencare's Therapist Success Manager. She is deeply committed to increasing access to care by streamlining the therapist search process, and particularly enjoys connecting LGBTQ+ folks with culturally competent therapists. She is a graduate of Brown University where she competed as a varsity swimmer.