Growing research supports the importance of sports psychology, especially in schools and athletic programs with high-performance expectations.
At UNC, a Power Five school that holds each team to a standard of national competition, establishing mental health programs for athletes is especially critical for their overall wellbeing.
Jeni Shannon, the director of the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology Program, is one of three full-time providers at UNC pioneering the athletic department’s approach to sports psychology. Shannon, alongside Brendan Carr and Bradley Hack, are developing programs to help address mental illness within UNC’s athletic community.
When Shannon was a senior in high school, a career-ending injury pulled her out of the world of competitive gymnastics and into coaching. An undergraduate course at the University of Arizona called “The Psychology of Excellence” exposed her to the field of sports psychology, and she noticed its relevance through her own experience in sports and her time with players.
While Shannon recognizes that UNC provides “an exciting athletic culture to be a part of,” she is also cognizant of the impact of high athletic expectations coupled with academic rigor.
“I think the flip side of it can be (that) it’s a lot of pressure and you’re very public sometimes,” Shannon said. “There is a lot of expectation. It’s a tough life, it really is.”
The impact of Shannon and her colleagues’ work within the athletic space reveals a key insight within the field of sports medicine when it comes to mental health, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rising senior volleyball player Parker Austin saw life as an athlete at UNC before and after COVID-19, and said that being an athlete during the pandemic was an isolating experience.
“It’s this never-ending cycle of wake up, work out, go to practice, come home, shower and go to bed,” Austin said. “It’s just this chronic cycle that you get kind of stuck into and you don’t leave your room, and you just don’t get to see other people. That affected me pretty heavily.”
AMP has grown exponentially in the past few years, expanding from one to three full-time providers. According to Shannon, a majority of the work she and her colleagues do involves interacting with athletes one-on-one, but there are also multiple new initiatives that aim to incentivize more peer leadership within sports teams themselves.
UNC field hockey head coach Karen Shelton said that Shannon’s work with her team has been “outstanding.”
Shannon hosts weekly 30-minute meetings with the team, providing a safe space to discuss topics such as athletic performance and social and team issues.
“It gives everybody a role on the team,” Shelton said. “No matter what your position is, you have a voice. I think that’s one of the biggest things, but also, performance. If you’re not having a good game, having a tool or something that you can think of that can pull you back in.”
Shannon works directly with a number of athletic teams at UNC through sessions, outreach and programming. She says there is also a newfound focus on training coaches so that they can be better equipped when mental health issues arise within their teams.
Another major aspect of integrating sports psychology into the UNC Department of Sports Medicine is the effort to destigmatize the discussion around performance issues and stress.
“Mental health is health,” Shannon said. “It’s not separate from, it’s just a part of your health. I think one of the most important things we can do is address it just like we do physical health. Have coaches mention it and talk about it. Have athletic trainers and team physicians be checking in on mental health along with physical health. Have athletes be willing to talk to each other about it.”
By ensuring players are comfortable discussing mental health issues with their coaching staff and peers, Shannon and her team can collectively develop a safer space for athletes at UNC.
While AMP is growing, three full-time providers may not be adequate for a large population of athletes. Some have voiced concerns that the number of providers doesn’t match the increased demand for mental health services.
“It is so awesome to see UNC as a whole start to destigmatize mental health,” UNC women’s soccer volunteer assistant and rising junior Madi Pry said. “We’re having more conversations about it and encouraging people to get help. But then again we have three full-time sports psychologists for over 800 athletes, which is of course going to create waitlists.”
The presence of an extensive waitlist, however, highlights the salience of Shannon’s work in the UNC athletic community, and shows that AMP is a UNC program should continue to develop.
“The influence that they’re having on athletes, now and removed and future athletes, is going to be huge,” Austin said. “I’m just excited to see how it keeps growing and how it can keep helping students because it’s truly so important.”
Shelby Swanson contributed reporting to this story.
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