How Virginia Athletics addresses mental health needs of student-athletes on Grounds

Virginia athletics

Virginia athleticsMental health concerns for student-athletes, and the general population, are skyrocketing, but the good news is, today people are much more likely to seek help.

“Where you would say, I’m not telling anybody I have an issue, because I don’t want to be told that I’m soft, or I’m weak or what have you, to the contrary, now you say, well, I know there are all these resources available, and you know, what, I had three friends in high school who saw counselors for a variety of reasons, it’s no big deal. I’m going to go reach out and utilize them myself, for the good. And so, you know, the trend is in the right direction, for sure,” said John MacKnight, the medical director for Virginia Athletics.

MacKnight joined “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show” recently to discuss what Virginia Athletics does to address the mental health needs of student-athletes on Grounds.

“These issues have been around for a long time, but there was absolutely a stigma not that long ago, in fact, we would have young people who clearly had issues with depression, had issues with anxiety and those sorts of things, and you couldn’t really even use those terms as you were talking with them about it, because as soon as you did, you could just tell that they were going to turn off whatever you were saying to them, that they didn’t want to embrace that that was something that they might have, and they certainly weren’t going to go in to address it,” MacKnight said.

“We really had to dance around that quite a bit, but little by little, each of these things that we were just talking about are kind of chipping away at this facade of, if I have a mental health concern, I should be comfortable to bring this to the attention of people who address this, and can help me be better,” MacKnight said.


The more we break down the stigma that traditionally prevented people from seeking mental health treatment, the more we realize that it’s just as normal to have a mental health concern as it is to have any of a number of physical health concerns.

“It’s not a weakness thing. It’s a facet of all of our lives,” MacKnight said. “At some point, the percentage of us in the general population who will have a significant mental health need over the course of our lives is the majority.

“Everybody does at some point, and so, I think we’re really trying to go out of our way now to normalize that experience, and to say that, if you are feeling this, hey, welcome to life, this is the way things are for you at this point in time.”

Specific to the world of athletics

“Kids are sports-specializing earlier in their lives, they have greater expectations for what they’re going to do in high school, and how they’re going to step up to the collegiate level, and what they’re going to do there, and then professional contracts and astronomical money,” MacKnight said.

And then there’s social media pressures.

“For some of our kids, I’ve heard them say, hey, I had a bad game, and, you know, I turned on my phone, and everybody in the world hates me, because I missed the last shot, or, you know, I missed an important free throw, or I struck out or whatever. They live in this microcosm of pressure that I can’t even fathom,” MacKnight said.

“We have 700-plus student-athletes who have become very much accustomed to being really good at what they do,” MacKnight said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be with us, and obviously, that’s true at every institution. And so, you got a lot of high-performing people who have tremendous personal expectations, and then, once they get to the university level, then it’s a real leveling process, right, because you were, in many cases, really big fish in a relatively small pond, because of your athletic attributes and your god-given gifts and how hard you work. And then you show up to UVA or any other institution, similar circumstance, and all of a sudden, you’re amidst a whole bunch of people who are like that.

“And so, figuring out where you settle out on a team, what your future looks like, you may have gone from the biggest dog on your team in high school, and you may never step between the white lines as a collegiate athlete, and that’s hard, understandably, that’s a challenge, that any of us would really struggle with,” MacKnight said.

“You’ve spent an awful lot of time feeling really good about yourself and who you are, and what you bring to the table, and that’s wrapped up in your not just your athletic attributes, but it’s really performance. And when you aren’t able to perform, because you don’t fall in the right place on the depth chart, or if you get hurt, and you get sidelined, and then all of a sudden, you’re like, hey, I’m now I’m broken. My whole life revolved around being really great at what I do, and now all of a sudden, I no longer have that ability. And that, that, as you can imagine, is really, really challenging.”


Virginia Athletics has dedicated sports psychologists on staff “who are not there just to help with sport, but they’re there to help with life, and they spend way more time helping kids navigate life challenges than they do, you know, can you hit the three free throws needed to win the national championship?” MacKnight said.

“We’ve been there too, right, and that’s we have value there. But now, I think it’s, how can I get through my course load? How can I deal with the fact that I had a breakup of a long-standing relationship? How do I deal was the fact that I have a lot of stress at home, and I’m no longer home?

“Student-athletes really have two full-time jobs,” MacKnight said. “They have to bust their tails as students, and then they spend tons of hours working on their sport. And so, relative to the general student population, and they legit have two full-time jobs. And most of them do beautifully with that, as long as you don’t have a lot of other things that get in the way. But as soon as you have some of these other factors come into play, like an injury, or significant family stressor, or the academic life is really a struggle for them, and it is tough to keep the all that stuff balanced, that’s when you hope that they will reach out and say, I need assistance in some way, I need to talk to somebody about what I have going on, because I can’t really keep all of this balanced right now, and I don’t feel good about where I’m at, and I need some help to find a path through.

“There’s plenty of help out there to make that happen,” MacKnight said.

Pandemic challenge

The ongoing COVID pandemic has pushed more people to the edge, and some over the edge, with increases in suicide, suicide ideation, anxiety and depression noted dating back to the beginning of the pandemic two years ago.

“Anxiety is all about fear, and the unknown. That’s what makes people anxious,” MacKnight said. “When you’re living in a pandemic, and you can’t do the things that you traditionally have, hang your hat on, that did help you feel good about yourself, and help you feel like you’re moving your life forward, and then there’s this incredible sense of, like, I have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring. Man, you want to talk about a recipe for anxiety, it’s that right there. So, all the things that we’re seeing actually are, I think, very predictable things.

“The value to what we’re seeing now on the therapy, side effects and the normalizing side of things, it’s just a crucial part of saying, this is the life we have right now, and, you know, these are the cards that we have been dealt, or that we have chosen to do to ourselves, what can we do to play those cards as best we can, and not fall prey to the stresses associated with them? That’s, that’s really where we’re at.”

Look out for one another

We’re all going through this together; some of us are better at processing and dealing with these trying times.

We can all get through this better if we keep on the lookout for each other.

“All of us should feel comfortable, for people that we know and love and care for, to be able to at least open that door and say, hey, how are things, I’ve noticed things seem to be different, or, hey, I can really understand that you might feel like you’re struggling right now or you’re challenged right now, is there anything I can do to help?” MacKnight said. “Even a single question, sometimes, is incredibly powerful to open that door. It helps people sort of embrace, like, wow, I thought I totally had this wrapped up, and no one would know, and yet, it’s very clear that by my actions or by my behaviors, by my emotions or people that know me well, that something isn’t right. It’s time for me to fess up and get this addressed.

“We should never feel ill at ease about that,” MacKnight said. “When we feel like there’s a need, and you’re right, I mean, just like someone who’s limping or someone who’s short of breath, or somebody who, you know, looks like they’re faint, I mean, those are easy, objective things to look at and be able to say, there’s clearly a problem here, and I need to get you some help.

“This is really no different, if you’re paying attention, and you’re looking for the clues, then yeah, I think is our role in, in helping people get to a better place is sometimes just to ask a few caring questions, and then, you know, help in any way that you have available to you to direct with regard to the resources that may make a world of difference that individual. I can’t emphasize that enough.

“It’s not getting that the numbers are going down. The numbers are going up. So I think as we pay closer and closer attention, as we, you know, embrace this more fully, whatever we can do to help with individuals that seems to happen, that could be one of the most important things you do for somebody in their life.”