The score isn’t looking good.
Across the country, college student-athletes are reporting higher levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout. According to a recent NCAA survey, 22% of male athletes say they feel “mentally exhausted”; for female athletes, the figure is a disturbing 38%.
While officials attribute some of this stress to the lingering effects of the pandemic, they also acknowledge the special toll that competitive college sports can take on student-athletes’ mental health—not only the pressure to win, but also to project confidence and strength and never admit weakness. While two-thirds of student athletes nationwide said they knew where to find mental health support on their campus, less than half said they would be comfortable seeking it, a reflection of the stigma that still surrounds mental health in sports culture.
Alyssa Belmont, Class of 2026, understands the story behind such statistics—and she wants to do something about it.
For as long as she’s been playing soccer, which is most of her life, Belmont has also been living with anxiety. This fall she became a campus captain for The Hidden Opponent, a national advocacy group that raises awareness about student-athlete mental health and seeks to reduce its stigma. A starting left defensive back on the women’s soccer team who is majoring in global and cultural communication, Belmont is now sharing what she’s learned with Suffolk’s Division III varsity athletic teams.
“The goal of the Hidden Opponent is to advocate for student-athletes who struggle with their mental health and connect them with the proper people and resources to get help,” she says. “We want to create a safe and healthy environment for student-athletes as a whole, allowing them to always feel comfortable and good about themselves—in class and on the playing field.”
“Not only do I enjoy watching our teams compete, but I truly enjoy watching their growth off the field,” says Adam Skaggs, associate director of athletics, whose responsibilities include implementing mental health programming for student-athletes and connecting them with the resources they need. “Having someone like Alyssa raising awareness and steering the way for her peers, that’s truly rewarding to see. She has grown immensely as a leader in the last year, and I know she is beyond determined to help end the mental health stigma in college sports.”
Vulnerability as strength
From youth level through high school, Belmont did it all. She played multiple sports, as well as performing year round as a singer and actor. By her own admission, the hectic schedule of practices, games, and performances was simply too much to handle.
She felt tired all the time, physically and mentally, and experienced depressive symptoms and struggles with her mental well-being. “I just felt burned out,” she says.
COVID, ironically, turned out to be her saving grace. Remote learning. No sports. No theater.
“I had nothing to do with the things I loved—and I was relieved,” she says. “It was the break I needed.”
Earlier this year, Belmont began meeting with a sports therapist, who has counseled her on issues like performance anxiety and burnout syndrome. “She has helped me develop a better frame of mind by giving me tips on how to handle certain situations,” she says. “I’m learning how to reflect on my feelings before, during, and after games.”
A self-described perfectionist, Belmont says she is also thankful for support from her professors, coaches, and especially her teammates.
“I love them; they inspire and motivate me every day,” she says. “Even when I show up a little tired, I always leave feeling good. I know they trust and believe in me and make me feel like I belong.”
While second-year Head Coach Ellie McDougall is a big fan of Belmont’s highly competitive on-the-pitch play, she says she is even more impressed with how she’s leading the charge with the Hidden Opponent.
“I’m proud of Alyssa and her vulnerability,” says McDougall. “Through the Hidden Opponent, she is not only supporting herself, but creating a platform for all Suffolk student-athletes to come forward with their own struggles. The Hidden Opponent is the next step to get student athletes the help they need and long for. The more they talk about their struggles, the easier it is.”
Earlier this fall, the Suffolk men’s and women’s soccer teams used their doubleheader against Curry College to spread the word. Suffolk players wore warm-up jerseys adorned with the Hidden Opponent’s logo, and shared information and resources on the sidelines throughout the games, including guidance on how to reframe negative self-talk, recognize perfectionism and burnout, and practice better self-care.
“We hope this message hit home with athletes, coaches, students, parents, or anyone who came to watch and listen,” says Belmont, who has recruited about a dozen Suffolk student-athletes as Hidden Opponent volunteers. They plan to conduct other mental health awareness events throughout the academic year.
“We want our athletes and the other teams’ athletes to understand that they don’t have to feel alone in their struggles, and for those who aren’t athletes, to not create more stigma than society already has.”