In the lead-up to the College Football Playoff National Championship showdown against the Washington Huskies, the Michigan Wolverines’ players and coaches have openly discussed the importance of mental health, highlighting their preparation, excitement and coping strategies.
With all of the time spent in the weight room, practice facilities, film room, press conferences and playing 13 games already this season (while still being full-time students), the athletes’ mental state is often overlooked.
While Michigan has been winning and the team is having success everywhere it goes, some players are having a down year. While running back Blake Corum set the Michigan record for touchdowns this season, Donovan Edwards took a step back from last season.
The former five-star is as talented as they come, breaking out in 2022 against Ohio State and TCU. But this year wasn’t as fruitful. His yards per carry aren’t even half as efficient as last season, dropping from 7.1 yards per carry to 3.5. His rushing yards went down from 991 in 2022 to 393 in 2023, and his rushing touchdowns decreased from seven to three.
While he expects more from himself, he is taking steps to stay mentally prepared as well as physically.
“I feel like this year has been a lot more of a mental aspect for me,” Edwards said. “I know that I’m going to be perfectly fine in the future, because as I said, God is going to put things in your life to show you the ups, show you the downs. It’s up to you to be able to rise to the occasion and remember the downtimes. Of course, I have the feeling of being flustered, and frustrated, and I definitely have been working on that. Mental health is a big thing for me. I’ve seen a therapist quite often now and that’s helped me get into a focused mind space. I just feel like this year has been a blessing for me. I’m in a National Championship game. I have three Big Ten Championship rings. The team is winning. The team has a lot of success. I just feel like regardless of how this year has gone for me, there has been a lot more blessings in what I’ve been going through beyond football. Even though I know I’m still going to be great at football.”
Many players echoed the statement by Edwards, speaking on the importance of trying to have fun amid the pressure and spotlight to succeed, training the mind for a grueling season and relying on the coaching staff and players to lift each other up.
“I think coach Harbaugh does a tremendous job of making sure we’re having fun when we’re working,” J.J. McCarthy said. “That does a lot for our mental health. A lot of the guys do things on the side for individual sake, but I feel like coach Harbaugh made the schedule very easy for us. It’s not overbearing. We are still getting the work done, but he’s made it very effortless.”
Part of keeping the players in a good mental state comes with enjoying the wins and having fun while playing the game everyone loves.
“I think the big piece for us is this is what we’ve been preparing for,” Sherrone Moore said. “From a mental health standpoint, we’re the happiest we could be because these are the moments that we’ve wanted, that we’ve worked for. I think it would have been vice versa if we wouldn’t have been here.
Moore’s reference to the team’s happiness and excitement about reaching the championship highlights an often-overlooked aspect of mental health in sports: positive psychology. The joy and fulfillment derived from achieving goals can significantly boost athletes’ mental states, contributing to improved performance and team cohesion.
Aside from having fun and staying positive, a few Wolverines also mentioned mental preparation is worked on from the first day of training camp, practicing repetition, balancing rest and strain on the body, and relying on the guys around them to pick them up.
“I think that really just goes back to falling back on our training,” Kris Jenkins said. “I really got to give — we really got to give props to coach (Ben Herbert) and our coaches because the way we’ve been training, starting from the winter cycle, we’ve really been putting so much emphasis and training to the point where coach Herb will literally address the team, and he’ll be like, You know you’re hurting, you know your body’s hurting, you know you’re sore, but the question is, what are you going to do? Are you still going to work hard enough to get to where you want to be or accomplish the dreams you said you want to accomplish or are you going it lay here and die and let the moment slip?”
Michigan’s approach to mental health is a microcosm of a broader trend in collegiate sports. Increasingly, teams and coaches recognize that mental health is a critical component of athletic performance. This recognition is leading to more comprehensive support systems for athletes, including access to mental health professionals, training in coping strategies and an environment where discussing mental health is not just accepted, but encouraged.
Their experiences and strategies highlight the importance of joy, resilience, balance and professional support in fostering a healthy mental state. This shift is not just beneficial for athletes’ performance but also for their overall well-being, extending far beyond their collegiate sports careers.