If you’re an NCAA athlete, you are about one of 6 percent of high school athletes that decided to continue to play in college – and successfully made the cut. This is a huge feat, but the transition can be rocky. That’s especially the case for female athletes who are faced with gender stereotypes when experiencing physical injuries and mental health issues.
I’m a freshman women’s rower at GW, and can attest to the close relationships between student athletes and their trainers, coaches, doctors and academic advisors that they rely on to guide them to succeed athletically and academically. The importance of trust between staff members and athletes cannot be understated, and all too often that trust is diminished when athletes – specifically females – feel as though they aren’t being heard. GW must do more to support the well-being and health of its female athletes by increasing female staff members and creating an open dialogue around the issue.
It’s hard to feel included and valued as a woman when you feel as though your health and well-being aren’t priorities.
Talking about emotional, mental and physical health is a challenge that many female athletes face. For example, the NCAA brings awareness to eating disorders through their website. Yet, I’ve never heard them discussed here until an athlete had to stop participation because of anorexia, even though female athletes can be particularly susceptible due to the body awareness that comes with sports. In my more than 10 years as an athlete, I’ve never met a female athlete who couldn’t tell you her exact weight and height, which is often discussed in relation to performance and ability. Mental illnesses should be discussed just like physical ones, and coaches need to encourage their athletes to openly talk about mental illnesses and brief them on how they can be identified.
Another common problem comes in the form of stress and anxiety. Stress can be motivating, and athletics are bound to be stressful with the pressures and competitiveness of wanting to win and satisfy your coach, teammates and yourself. However, often times female athletes internalize stress and anxiety until it manifests itself physically because they are discredited by the stereotype of women being overly emotional. As a women’s rower, I feel pressure to push through stressful situations, like hard practices or injury-related stress – hiding them from my coaches and teammates in order to seem stronger. Because of this, there have been times that the pressure has gotten to me. I have found myself throwing up before races or not being able to sleep for weeks because of athletic-related anxieties as well as physical injuries.
This past fall, I was diagnosed with an injury that impairs the use of both my legs, and I recently underwent double leg surgery to fix it. I went through months of painful tests and eight different doctors not knowing what was wrong with me. Through that entire process, my mental health and outlook on life suffered. Getting injured while playing a Division 1 sport is almost a guarantee, and with every physical injury comes the stress of the uncertainty of recovery. Coaches and staff must create an environment where athletes don’t feel as though they have to hide their emotions in order to seem stronger through opening the door for conversation. More has to be done to combat all forms of illness and how mental illness is viewed in the athletic community.
This semester, former GW soccer player Tanya Vogel replaced athletics director Patrick Nero as the interim director of athletics. In the 2016-17 season, only 11.2 percent of athletic directors at the D1 level were female. This is a huge gender disparity in a field that should be striving to not only treat athletes equally, but everyone they employ. The largest complaint that I’ve heard from female athletes is that they feel like there is no one to talk to when it comes to reporting sexism and mental health issues. It can be very hard to go to a male coach or director and say, “This is sexist,” or “I’m having panic attacks.” But the promotion of more women in sports in administrative and coaching roles is one way this can be changed.
It took me months to admit to my coaches that I was having a hard time dealing with an injury. Even when I finally told them after months, I was defensive and guarded in how badly depressed I was becoming because of it. It’s much easier to talk about your health when you know that there are members in the administration who have been in your shoes.
GW must do more to fight gender-based inequalities in athletics.
In 2012, GW launched its “You Can Play” program, aiming to show verbal support for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. This is one step GW has taken to ensure that students of all backgrounds are allowed to play the sports they love.
However, this isn’t enough. It’s hard to feel included and valued as a woman when you feel as though your health and well-being aren’t priorities. I love the athletics department and the staff that runs it because of the integral role they play in helping me achieve my goals. But often, you can start to feel as though you’re just a body. There is a personal chip on every young girl’s shoulder to “always be faster than the boys,” as world-class Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin says. This quote is meant to inspire, but it just reminds you that to be viewed as equal or worthy, you have to try harder and be even better. I surveyed my fellow teammates by asking whether they believed they are respected and treated the same as male athletes at GW, and the answer was a unanimous “no.” For many, there is always the underlying feeling of being “less than,” even if it isn’t explicit.
GW must do more to fight gender-based inequalities in athletics. Although I do not doubt that GW values its student athletes and tries to support them on and off the field, more needs to be done to combat gender disparities and make sure female athletes aren’t put on the back burner.
Marin Christensen, a freshman, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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