Navigating College, Sports, and Anxiety/OCD

College is where people are said to “find themselves.” In college, students pave their way by gaining independence, determining their values, developing new interests, dreaming about the future, and taking steps towards a career. Although these young adults may feel prepared for college, it is a wakeup call for many. It can be their first time being away from home, and the first time one is truly expected to make their own way and take care of themselves fully. 

The changes to the environment are significant at this life stage and the adjustment can cause undue stress. With all of the new freedom comes new responsibility and expectations, whether it be from coaches, professors, peers, or even one’s own desires for themselves. College is not always a walk in the park. So, it comes with no surprise that mental health struggles are also all too familiar within this young adult population. 

The stressors of a student-athlete

Collegiate athletes face a variety of unique stressors tied to sport such as recruitment, balancing school, social life and performance in sport, maintaining a scholarship, and making travel teams. Without appropriate coping skills in place, these stressors may increase, leading to higher risks of mental health issues. Yet, collegiate athletes are often hesitant to seek mental health resources due to a variety of barriers such as fear of coaches finding out, lack of education of where and when to receive support, and limited time (Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019; Gulliver et al., 2012; Reardon & Factor, 2010). 

Although student-athletes face risk of high levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, they feel higher levels of personal perceived stigma than that of the general student population (Bratland-Sanda & Sundgot-Borgen, 2013; Cox, 2015; Goldman, 2014; Kaier et al., 2015; Wolanin et al., 2015). Perceived stigma is a treatment barrier preventing athletes from obtaining mental health resources for their struggles (Kaier et al., 2015).

If you are a collegiate athlete struggling with stress or anxiety, you are not alone. In fact, Cromer and colleagues (2017) found that the prevalence rate of OCD among a group of collegiate athletes was 5.2%, which is over double that of the general population (2.3%). Other prevalent mental health diagnoses exist among the collegiate athlete population as well, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse (Dean & Rowan, 2014; Ryan et al., 2018). 

You are not alone with your OCD

Baseball, sports and man throwing a ball during a professional game on a field with a team. Athlete pitching during an event for sport, competition or training with focus, balance and speed at a park focused on anxiety in athletes.Anxiety does not have to isolate you. You are not alone in your struggle. Stigma and fear keep athletes from obtaining support, but appropriate evidence-based care can get one back to the life they once had before OCD or anxiety took over. As a collegiate athlete, I thought I had no reason to be unhappy. I felt that my anxiety was a matter of not being resilient, strong, or Christian enough. I was on a full-ride scholarship to compete at an incredible school. Plus, I was successful in my sport, and had support from coaches, peers, and family. It seemed like there was no excuse for me to be stuck in my head.

So, I kept my anxious thoughts to myself for as long as possible before I couldn’t hide them any longer. If I would have spoken up about my struggles earlier, I would have found support much sooner. Suffering in silence is the worst kind of pain to experience. There are others there ready to help you through your suffering. 

What compulsions look like

As a college athlete, many of my OCD compulsions involved my sport. The week of a track meet, I was much more likely to tap certain numbers of times, repeat, seek reassurance, confess, or replay mental thoughts. I had magical thinking tied to sinning. If I sinned or said anything wrong, I would be physically weighed down in my race, which would in turn make me run slower. I was more hesitant with my conversations to others out of fear that I could say the wrong thing and that this would negatively impact my race. It felt like I had to be completely in the clear from sin or mistakes in order to be prepared to make it to the starting line stress free, which as we all know is highly unlikely and quite frankly impossible. 

My anxiety was much higher and so compulsions were how I coped, until I found a new way. My fear was that if I gave up these compulsions, I would become a worse runner. So much of my identity was tied into being a great runner and making my coach and family proud. My people-pleasing tendencies drilled compulsions in. For a long time, I was willing to pay whatever the cost to be the best, even if that meant spending hours doing compulsions. 

Learning to break free from OCD

So, when I began engaging in therapy my junior year at Rice, one can imagine I did not buy into the exposure work right from the start. My therapist asked me to try tying my shoes without repeating four times, or to try not to round off to that even number of miles in my running the days leading up to the race. I had to get to a place where I decided that the pain I was experiencing from OCD was not sustainable. When I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted to love my sport even after college, I learned what it was like to break free from OCD a little at a time. 

By starting with lower-level exposures, I was able to lean in and obtain the freedom I once had. It felt reckless at first to engage in these exposures instead of doing my usual compulsions, and I would not have been able to stick with it without the accountability of my therapist checking in on me regularly. Those people-pleasing skills came in handy for exposure accountability.

Making progress in therapy

A little at a time, my race-day mindset began to change. I was able to laugh and smile instead of shudder with fear. I was able to take three minutes putting on my uniform instead of 30 minutes. My sport became a small portion of my life instead of something that consumed me entirely. I was able to see a future me enjoying running again instead of feeling like a prisoner to it. 

Anxiety in sport should never steal your sport away from you. We all experience some anxiety leading up to competition, but this helps put our bodies in the competing zone. Adrenaline pumps through the veins and preps you for what is to come, but when the anxiety becomes agonizing and it controls you instead of you controlling it, that is the kind of anxiety we know may not be sustainable.

Living a values-driven life

Your core values should come before anything else. I valued running and my anxiety made me hate it. I valued happiness and anxiety took that away, too. Finally, I valued success and the amount of sleep, time, and joy I was losing was slowly starting to negatively impact my performance as well. When I decided that no sport was worth losing my core values that made me who I was, it was go time. Sports coach talking to his student anxiety in athletes.

When the exposures got more challenging, I would constantly fall back on these core values. “Is this compulsion helping me enjoy my sport?” “No.” “Does this compulsion make me happy?” “Definitely not.” “Is this compulsion leading me to long term success?” “Negative.”

As competitive athletes, you have taught your body to push through challenges, endurance, mental toughness, and grit. You can push yourself mentally and physically to expand your strength, stability, and endurance. However, you do not have to push yourself to “white knuckle” through debilitating anxiety. When we give in to anxiety for short-term relief, it plants longer-term roots. 

  1. You are not alone.
  2. OCD does not make you a better athlete. 
  3. Seeking outside support shows bravery, not weakness.

Be a leader and a voice for your teammates and peers by taking care of your mental health. You never know who may find their own courage to do so after first watching you be brave. 


  • Bratland-Sanda, S., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2013). Eating disorders in athletes: Overview of prevalence, risk factors and recommendations for prevention and treatment. European Journal of Sport Science, 13, 499-508.
  • Cox, C. (2015). Investigating the prevalence and risk-factors of depression symptoms among NCAA division I collegiate athletes. (Unpublished doctoral master's thesis). Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Illinois
  • Dean, C., & Rowan, D. (2014) The social workers role in serving vulnerable athletes. Journal of Social Work Practice, 28, 219-227.
  • Goldman, S. (2014) Anxiety disorders. Mind, Body & Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness. NCAA 2014, 29-31.
  • Gulliver, A., Griffiths, K. M., & Christenson, H. (2012). Barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking for young elite athletes: a qualitative study. Journal of Psychiatry, 12, 157- 171.
  • Kaier, E., Cromer, L. D., Johnson, M. D., Strunk, K., & Davis, L. (2015). Perceptions of mental illness stigma: Comparisons of athletes to nonathlete peers. Journal of College Student Development, 56, 735-739.
  • Wolanin, A., Hong, E., Marks, D., Panchoo, K. & Gross, M. (2016) Prevalence of clinically elevated depressive symptoms in college athletes and differences by gender and sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50, 167-171.
Black male runner about to start a race.
Thomas Smalley Stretching an Athlete
Soccer players kicking a ball