Athletes share experiences and insights on overcoming adversity

Photo courtesy of Eric Burgon

Student-athletes are some of the most admired and respected students on campus. With that admiration comes a spotlight that shines brightly, and along with it, scrutiny and constant pressure. Behind the scenes of the life of a student-athlete, things are certainly no layup.

Student-athletes must find balance and dedicate their time to a variety of areas. Director of Athletics Jared Sumsion says that there are a variety of competing interests in their lives.

“Being a student-athlete is more than a full-time job. Practices, competitions, travel, mandatory NCAA meetings/[training], university meetings, family stresses, social pressures, financial strain, and most importantly academics are a few things that hit student-athletes daily,” said Sumsion.

Sumsion says there are many misconceptions regarding the life of a student-athlete and that they don’t live the worry-free life that the public perceives.

“Some of our student-athletes are married, some are mothers and fathers. They really don’t have time to have meaningful jobs due to the constraints of being an NCAA DI student-athlete,” Sumison said.“One big misnomer is that all student-athletes are on full scholarships. The reality is that most are on partial to no scholarship money. Some do receive full scholarships, but the majority receive very little financial assistance and they pay tuition and fees just like every other student.”

Attempting to find balance in various facets of life is not the only obstacle student-athletes face either. As athletes, they have a bright, at times critical spotlight on them. 

“Student-athletes receive social media messages all the time … Some have received extremely negative messages after a poor performance in a competition. It is a stressor that most people aren’t used to since they aren’t in the public eye like student-athletes are. When we play at other venues, fans will troll their social media and make comments about them during games … I have a great deal of respect for the way our UVU Wolverines handle themselves in these situations. Social pressures like these eventually add up,” said Sumsion.

With all of the challenges that student-athletes face, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, stressed, nervous, and anxious by pressures that can negatively impact one’s mental health. Mental health issues are not something exclusive to student-athletes, however, as Dr. Sumsion indicated, student-athletes have several stressors in their lives that can adversely affect their mental state. Some of the top athletes here at UVU were willing to share their experiences with The Review about balancing their difficult schedules, maintaining mental health, along with mental health advice, not just for athletes, but all students.

Utah Valley XC stand-out Hannah Branch

Photo courtesy of UVU Athletics

Hannah Branch has been running cross country at UVU since 2017 when she was named Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year. Branch, who has just begun her senior season, says that her approach to stress and failure has evolved throughout the years.

“[As an athlete], you have this pressure to perform in different aspects. You have this academic pressure … if you fail a class, that impacts your team. You’re not going to school for just yourself you’re going to school for others,” said Branch.

“There is pressure to perform. You have to show up to practice every day … you don’t want to let yourself down, your team down your coaches down or your school down. When you go to compete you have your university across your chest so you’re representing more than just yourself. You are representing a whole student body as well.”

In instances of disappointment or poor performance, Branch says that self-reflection is what she falls back on to work through those negative experiences.

“[I understand] that I did everything that I could. It doesn’t necessarily mean every day is going to be my day… It all comes within preparation. Did I go to practice? Did I sleep well? Am I taking care of my body? Am I studying for tests? Am I reaching out for help? … If I do those things, that helps me put into perspective [that] I did everything that I could. Was there anything that I could have possibly done differently? If that answer is no then I have kind of learned how to be OK with it … I cannot be disappointed in myself,” said Branch.

Branch says it is important to communicate and reach out for help, wherever that help may come from.

“Finding people that you trust, finding people that you can talk to … your circle could be a school psychologist, it could be a teacher, a church leader,” she said.“Just being able to open yourself up gives you a new perspective … it allows you to think about where you’re at, what you may need help with and also what your doing well at as well.”

UVU volleyball star Kazna Tanuvasa

Photo courtesy of UVU Athletics

Kazna Tanuvasa is currently in her fifth year of eligibility, and is one of the stars of the UVU Volleyball team. Tanuvasa, who recently became the university’s all-time kills leader, loves mental health and it is something she has a great passion for.

“Growing up as a student-athlete, that is what you do 24/7. It is hard to separate my worth off the court and on the court. I receive a lot of gratification from my sport and it’s difficult when you have those rough days and being able to separate that,” Tanuvasa said. “I am more than just a student-athlete, I am more than just an athlete I am a person. I receive a lot of my personal worth on the court and it has taken me a lot of time to separate the athlete and the person.” 

Tanuvasa says that having a solid support system has helped her maintain good mental health throughout adversity.

“Being married now too, I am lucky enough to have an incredible husband. I have a really awesome partner and a husband who keeps things in focus for me that I am really lucky to have that not many people in their collegiate years have,” said Tanuvasa.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes as student-athletes asking for help makes us feel weak. [I recommend] talking to your teammates, your coaches or people that you trust. It’s not something you should go through alone and nine times out of 10 your not the only one going through it.”

Something that Tanuvasa found helpful in her life is keeping a journal and participating in an activity the volleyball team calls a 3-1.

“At the end of the day, we do something we call a 3-1. It helps frame your mental space … being able to recognize three things you are doing well and one thing you can work on is super beneficial.”

For those struggling with their mental health, Tanuvasa’s message was simple.

“Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are not alone. People are there to help”

UVU All-American wrestler Demetrius Romero

Photo courtesy of UVU Athletics

All-American wrestler Demetrius Romero has battled with many trials, most recently overcoming a torn ACL in the 2021-22 season. Romero has found that focusing on self-betterment has helped him to keep positive through physical rehabilitation and other tough times.

“Having to sit out a year without competition or even be able to train, it’s hard watching your peers do what you love… When I tore my ACL I took more of a coaching role … I picked up a lot of habits,” Romero said. “One thing that was big for me was learning how to cope with my ADHD. I couldn’t move at all and I had to get my energy out so I invested myself more into reading and meditation to calm myself using more natural techniques.”

Romero said that developing himself as a person and figuring out who he was helped him to find value in himself outside of his sport. 

“I am a therapist so I invested myself more into therapy to find myself and figure out who I was. One way that student-athletes struggle is to find themselves outside of their sport. How can I better myself in this aspect of my life? What are some things I need to do to push myself to this next level that doesn’t involve sports, so that if I don’t have sports I have something to fall back on.”

Romero’s advice to anyone going through a tough time is to avoid bottling things up.

“My advice would be to reach out, talk to friends, get help and don’t feel like you’re in the wrong. We tell people, you have to pick yourself up by your bootstraps. You’ve got to realize we’re all human beings and it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be depressed, and it’s okay to talk about it. The more you hold that in, the more that’s gonna build up and cause problems in your life,” he said.  

“A big thing that people overlook is physical health, emotional health and spiritual health. I think all of these things are correlated and tie into each other. Being able to fix your sleep schedule, eating right, exercising, not harboring emotions … All of these things tie together. Just because we feel physically good we may not be good emotionally and that is gonna negatively affect that … taking care of all those aspects together is what we need to do.”

The university is well aware of the trials its student-athletes face, and Sumsion says as an athletics program they are making strides to better the well-being of their athletes.

“We take the mental health and well-being of our student-athletes seriously,” said Sumsion. “We have some fantastic resources in place on campus. We have a dedicated mental health therapist who specializes in sports therapy and sports performance named Kevin Woods II,” Sumison said. “Kevin was a former basketball player at UVU and after graduation went and finished all his graduate school. We were lucky to be able to hire him in this role as most schools do not have a dedicated therapist … I am glad that we are able to provide professional resources for our student-athletes to help them learn coping mechanisms and life skills that will also help them down the road after graduation.”

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