Humans First

by Brian Shim

When Samantha Shupe leaves the volleyball court, she doesn’t just walk off as an athlete. On the court, she’s a star, known by her teammates and her spectators as a top player. Beyond that, though, she’s just another student like the rest of us, anonymous among the herds that crowd outside Rebecca’s Cafe and the silent territorial battles inside Snell Library. 

It’s been long known that collegiate athletes perform under some of the most rigorous and demanding schedules of all college students. While they dedicate their lives and bodies to their crafts – working day in and day out to perform at the highest physical level – they must simultaneously maintain a full academic schedule. While typical students can be heard miles away complaining about their struggles with balancing extracurriculars, scholarship, and social lives within their weeks, student-athletes are expected to juggle an almost-full-time job on top. 

“It’s difficult,” Shupe said. “But you kind of develop a really good work ethic as you go through it. You have to learn fast how to manage your time, how to stay organized, how to effectively communicate with professors for everything you miss.”

This process is only made more strenuous at a university like Northeastern, which throws increased academic rigor, institutionalized co-op, and a culture of global experience into the mix. However, Shupe takes this increased expectation as a challenge.

“I kind of welcome the pressure. It just makes me work harder,” said Shupe. “I think that added challenge is very beneficial in the long run, and it’s really why I came to this school in the first place. It’s a challenge by choice.”

Despite these pressures, Northeastern athletes are not just left out in the cold to manage their two-sided lives. Over the years, the athletics department has expanded in many directions and now encompassing a diverse range of resources in athletics, academics, and mental health. Especially in an age where the needs and health of the individual are emphasized, Northeastern recognizes the importance of building their athletes on every level, not just physical. Katie Brooks, a performance health coach, has played a major role in building up and improving the department’s student resources.

“It’s my role to work collaboratively with everyone in the department to enhance student-athlete development,” Brooks explained. “We’re all working to figure out how to optimize health, well-being, and performance in student-athletes.”

According to Brooks, the key to being successful in providing resources lies in recognizing that their student-athletes are students – and humans – first, and athletes second. The department emphasizes a holistic approach to athlete development; one that includes the traditional aspects of sports performance, such as training, strength, and recovery, but also more diverse characteristics such as academic support, sleep, and mental health. By focusing on developing a multifaceted range of resources, the athletic community not only builds strong athletes, but individual health, academic maturity, leadership skills, and better people. 

“We’re developing better human beings,” Brooks stressed, “and the byproduct of that is winning games and having better performers.”

New initiatives in nutrition are some of the most prominent steps being taken in the department. While nutrition can be one of the most tedious aspects of physical health, it is undoubtedly one of the most important foundations of performance; an effective athlete must be conscious and proactive in their food choices, targeting proper macronutrient and calorie levels for each day. Although this can be daunting for students, the department has worked to make the process as streamlined as possible. While external resources such as food delivery services, team meals, dedicated nutrition staff, and snacks and supplements within facilities are made accessible to students, Katie Brooks believes that the best way to create successful resources is through education. Workshops, one-on-one consulting, and team meetings all contribute towards making sure every student-athlete knows what resources are available to them and how to access them. According to Brooks, educating student-athletes is ultimately a matter of giving them the opportunities to make their own decisions: “We ultimately want them to be agents of their own lives.”

Another major focus of the department that has developed in recent years, reflecting a growing cultural concern on mental health, is body positivity in athletes. 

“There [are] elements to body image in sports that can make it different, potentially, than in normal students,” said Dr. Adam Naylor, the mental game consultant in the athletics program.

Shupe agrees with Dr. Naylor. Athletes in particular have different body standards than other people, and when those standards start to diverge from normal societal expectations in competitive sports, there can be a drift in a player’s relationship with body image. Shupe recalled on her own experience: “People will want you to fit into social norms, and as I got into middle school and high school, I started to get self-conscious about it.”

In tone with their broader philosophy of developing their players holistically, the athletics department has taken care to recognize that mental health struggles are not exclusive to certain groups, but affect people indiscriminately, including their student-athletes. 

“At some stage of our lives, [we’re all] going to struggle,” Dr. Naylor emphasized. “But we’re not good help-seekers as humans.”

Many, like Shupe, believe that the key to addressing body image and other mental health concerns in the student-athlete community lies in education, just as with other department initiatives.

“I think the resources here are great,” said Shupe. “The issue that we’ve had in the past is us being aware, as athletes and students, that these resources are available.”

There are a number of ways through which the athletic community reflects this value on education. Staff members in the department all work collaboratively to run discussions, workshops, and individual meetings with players to ensure that student-athletes know that resources exist. While the department itself has several staff dedicated towards the broader mental aspect of sports, for more specific mental health counseling, athletes are encouraged to connect with the many resources that the University maintains outside of the athletics community as well.

However, the staff are not the only ones pushing for reform and progress in athletes’ mental health, as student-athletes themselves have started to take initiative themselves. According to Shupe, SAAC – the Student Athlete Advisory Committee – has seen great improvements in the past few years, giving players an independent voice on a number of issues in the community. Working with student members from a number of different sports, SAAC is focusing on using platforms such as social media to spread awareness in the athletic community on topics like mental health, inform student-athletes on various resources, and open healthy conversations among teammates. 

“We want to make sure every team is aware of the fact that these resources are there,” explained Shupe, “but we want more engagement in general. If we can show support towards different teams, we’re hoping that in return they will be more involved with activities and events. And as the year goes on, we will continue to have larger events where people can talk about these issues.”