For four years, Sydney Nelson played for MSU’s softball team. During her time with the Mavericks she started in 50 games, recorded 21 hits, drove 13 runs in and scored 12 points. Nelson was also named to the NSIC All-Academic Team of Excellence.
But as her final year of eligibility approached, Nelson made a decision that probably surprised a lot of people. She stepped away. Due to stressors and burnout she faced as a student athlete, she decided it was time to focus on herself.
“It is a really rare opportunity to play in college and I never want to sound ungrateful because I’ll forever be grateful for everything,” Nelson said. “For me it was the burnout, it started to feel like the same day over and over again. You put all your eggs in one basket and then you have nothing else to lean on once you need a break.”
Being a student can be tough, mix in practices, workouts, training and games on top of it and it can become even more complicated. Oftentimes the phrase student athlete is overlooked by the public, Nelson is advocating for the struggles student athletes face on a day-to-day basis and wants them to be recognized as students just as much as they are athletes.
During her time as a student athlete she was elected President of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. While there she made sure to set an initiative to bring awareness to mental health. One thing they always did was host a panel with players and coaches to talk about the stigmas of mental health and how to break those barriers.
Nelson said her first time battling anxiety and depression was her sophomore year of high school when she suffered a pars defect in her back; the injury left her out of all sports as she essentially had a broken spinal cord due to overuse.
“It was a punch in the gut,” Nelson said. “I didn’t know how to cope with being out because I was so result driven. That’s when I first started having anxiety. Being in a sport and being active gave me purpose. I started having an unhealthy balance that made me think that if I don’t work out everyday then I’m lazy.”
Nelson’s injury caused her to face other mental health battles she has noticed in other athletes.
“When adversity hits what can you lean on that’s not just running up and down a track? I think it produced a borderline eating disorder and I feel that’s common in athletes. I’ve heard my peers say ‘Well I didn’t play so I shouldn’t get a big meal because I didn’t get results.’”
Once she got back onto the field, the “yips” and burnout caused her mental health struggles to continue as the recruiting process began.
The “yips” is an unexplainable occurrence where players struggle to throw the ball. It is a mental block that affects their muscles and it often sends the ball flying inaccurately in an unwanted spot. Nelson faced this problem while she was recruited by MSU. She questioned her future in the sport. It caused her stress, leaving her burnt.
“I was playing third base and normally it was muscle memory to throw it to second, I ended up sending it flying to the right field fence,” Nelson said. “I ended up getting really timid everytime I would play catch and would stop when I was supposed to release it and the ball would go sailing. It caused me to feel a sense of embarrassment.”
After meeting with a sports psychologist, she realized the “yips” is not as uncommon as most think, and she was taught ways to combat the condition. Nelson also had a good support system when she got to MSU.
In a study done by The American College of Sports Medicine, they found that 30% of women and 25% of men who are student-athletes report having anxiety. Only 10% of all student athletes with known mental health conditions seek care from a mental health professional.
To help combat this issue, MSU’s team implemented one-on-one meetings with players and coaches as well as group meetings to let the players open up about whatever is on their mind and to break the stigma around mental health.
Nelson wants to remind people that mental health days should be treated the same as sick days.
“If you’re mentally not there, treat it as though you have the flu or an injured foot,” she said. “Mental health is not seen does not mean it should be invisible and untreated.”
After her fourth year, she went through a self realization that led her to the decision to step away from softball.
“I felt like I couldn’t have any days off and I had to be at the field,” she said. “I would be up late at night thinking of an at bat from two weeks ago or thinking of one bad play I had at practice. No one was thinking of these things but me and I realized I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
“I had a great four years, experience-wise, I had great teammates, we had great seasons and priceless memories and I realized I was satisfied with that,” she said. “I realized I don’t need to put myself through something that will drain me every single day.”
Now she is embracing her decision to step away. She continues working toward her degree in speech language pathology, and is taking it “day by day” saying she wants to “live more in the moment.”
“I wouldn’t change a thing because it made me the person I am today. I am so grateful for the connections I’ve made with teammates and coaches. Now I have been making connections outside of the athlete world and it has been very unique, I get to enjoy sports from a different perspective.”
Nelson says she hopes there is more advocacy for student athlete mental health and hopes it isn’t so “hush-hush.”
“Let your story be heard,” she said. “Even if you think it is major or minor, people are going to listen and your message can actually make others more comfortable and willing to talk on behalf of themselves as well. I think the biggest thing is I don’t want mental health to just be talked about during Mental Health Awareness Month. Let it be normal, it is okay to not be okay, we are all trying to figure life out together.”
If you want to hear more from Sydney Nelson, check out her TikTok @sydddnelson where she shares her experiences of being a student athlete.
Header Photo: Courtesy of Sydney Nelson
Write to Luke Jackson at email@example.com