Basket case: How athletes stay calm amid competition, pressure to perform

Dan Akin, graduate student, goes for a dunk against UT Rio Grande Valley. Elijah Hickman

California Baptist University had its last home game for men’s basketball on March 2. Our team took victory over Chicago State University with a closing score of 62-53. It was a victorious night celebrating seniors Elijah Thomas, Tobin Kund, Ty Rowell and Dan Akin.

As of March 2, CBU men’s basketball stands 10th in the Western Athletic Conference. The Lancers stand eighth in the WAC for scoring offense and ninth for scoring defense. California Baptist is ranked sixth in the conference for three-point field goal percentage. The men’s team was ranked fifth in the WAC for rebounding margin, assists and defensive rebound percentage. As we know, the Lancers have some star three-point shooters, with CBU’s highest standing of third in the conference for three-point field goals made.

Being a student-athlete isn’t just about peak physical performance. Other factors, including mentality and the pressure of being a division-I athlete, play a role in how athletes perform. Holding a D1 athlete position requires intense focus on sport and school. It takes excellent psychological strength to juggle all obligations of being a student-athlete. The NCAA reports that “anxiety disorders are among their athletes’ most common psychiatric problems.” This can include performance anxiety which “is connected to the anticipation of the act and becoming overwhelmed during specific components of performance.” Performance anxiety may make it difficult to hold precise focus. If athletes are not maintaining this focus, it can affect an athlete’s practice and game-day performance.

AthletesForHope writes, “35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout or depression and anxiety.” Therefore, combating the stigma around mental health is important. Many athletes suffer to the point that anxiety affects their functioning, but some do not reach out for help. Raising awareness and gaining insight into how student-athletes preserve their mental health is the first step to changing the narrative regarding mental health issues.

It is important to have a positive and determined mindset on game days specifically. Anything that happens throughout the day could impact performance during the game. 

“(I wake up) ready to get the day started and prepare for the game,” said Reed Nottage, sophomore international business major. “(I) listen to music or meditate in front of the statue.” 

There are many opportunities for one’s mentality to decline during gameplay. In basketball, halftime is a make-or-break moment. 

“(My mindset going into halftime) depends on what’s happening in the game, but (we are) looking to either fix what needs to be fixed or continue doing what we’re doing,” Nottage said. “(I) just focus on executing, locking in and staying focused.”

A proper game-day mentality does not just end when the game ends; it remains with student-athletes throughout the night and most times throughout their whole career. 

“(After a game, the team typically has a) quick chat about the game and does radio if needed.,” Nottage said. “(I also) eat, get hydration back up and then go home and get rest.”

Gameday mentality includes everyone involved with the team. Coaches go through their own stress and hardships as well. 

“You’re with each other in the ups and downs,” said Rick Croy, head coach of the CBU men’s basketball team. “You see each other in tough moments. You’re going all in. That’s the goal is to get guys to go all in. We always say, ‘nothing vested, nothing hurts’ and if you don’t invest you can stay on the fringe and you never have to invest emotionally, and nothing hurts. That’s not our group.

“You’ve seen these guys grow whether they’ve been with you for five years, two years or even a year. The volume of time that we spend together is really high. We put in a lot of work together.”

Gaining insight into game-day mentalities from the CBU men’s basketball team shows those not involved in athletics how mental health can play a role in the lives of student athletes. The goal of NCAA and AthletesForHope is to start the conversation about mental health in college-level sports. 

Student-athletes need to ensure they are doing everything they can to maintain their intensive focus and balance all aspects of their life to keep their mentality well-grounded.

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