Wide field of pressures afflicts student-athletes

On the afternoon of Oct. 8, University of Pennsylvania running back Kyle Ambrogi scored two touchdowns while helping the Quakers dominate Bucknell, 53-7.

Football was not the only thing Ambrogi had success with in his life. Ambrogi, a finance major, held a 3.4 grade point average at the world-renowned Wharton School of Business. He had recently completed a summer internship with a local investment group, and was receiving job offers.

Just two days after his big day against Bucknell, Ambrogi, 21, took his own life.

Ambrogi suffered from depression, a psychological condition that affects 10 percent of all Americans at some point in their lives, according to a report published by the American Psychological Association. Suicide, often a result of depression, is the third-highest cause of death among people ages 15 to 24.

Though sometimes genetically-linked, depression is compounded by the pressures in an individual’s life, said Dr. John DiMino, director of Temple’s Tuttleman Counseling Services.

“Sometimes, it seems that there is something genetic linked,” DiMino said. “Having said that, depression is a very normal feeling to have … So depression is a very important emotion and it’s not something to necessarily be feared or to be made into something else.”

Several Temple student-athletes said they face a variety of pressures that stem from their athletic competition, schoolwork, and social and family lives. How student-athletes relieve themselves of this pressure is vital to their health, DiMino said.

Adjusting to a higher level of athletic competition is a factor, too, said Owls football coach Bobby Wallace.

“They’ve been the great player on their high school team, the junior-high team, the little league team and all of a sudden, especially at Division I, you get to a place where there’s guys who were heroes in high school who aren’t playing,” Wallace said. “It’s a very difficult transition for [some].”

The legacy and reputation of the institution a student-athlete attends can also place pressure on an individual, Wallace said. As an example, he cited North Alabama, where he won three consecutive Division II National Championships. Those titles placed added pressure to succeed on the team.

Some student-athletes feel pressure from their families to succeed in sports. Men’s gymnastics coach Fred Turoff said he once coached a gymnast who, in response to pressure from home, cut his arms with a razor blade on numerous occasions, resulting in a trip to the hospital. While there, the athlete received a psychological evaluation and was later released, Turoff said.

“It was more of a cry of help,” Turoff said. “Fortunately, he didn’t scratch any major arteries … but it was not a good scene at all. This was somebody who didn’t talk to me about his problems.”

The likelihood of a student-athlete actively seeking help can vary. Dr. Frank Farley, a Temple psychology professor and former APA president, said playing on a team can both increase and decrease the probability of an ailing student-athlete seeking help.

Farley said being a member of a team has a fishbowl effect, where teammates closely monitor each other’s reactions to successes and failures. If teammates see an individual exhibiting unstable habits, they can assist the individual in seeking help, Farley said. On the other hand, Farley added, an individual could refrain from seeking help because teammates may look down on him or her.

“It could inhibit some kids from doing it because some people might feel there’s a stigma attached with seeing a psychiatrist,” Farley said.

Female athletes are more likely than males to seek psychotherapy, DiMino said, who added that Tuttleman Counseling Services receives nearly twice as many females as males. DiMino said these numbers are the result of a stereotype that women are more open to speaking about their emotions.

“Women are socialized more to talk about their feelings,” DiMino said. “It’s more acceptable. It’s more acceptable to express emotions in relationships. Those are typical things that you see in couple therapy or popular culture.”

Freshman cross country runner Angela Washko said she thinks it is generally easier to detect the way women feel.

“I think girls are more open in showing their emotions, generally,” Washko said.

Even during the offseason, student-athletes are kept busy by their sport. Staying in shape, injury rehabilitation and preparatory work for the upcoming season take up chunks of time.

Men’s gymnastics co-captain Nadov Simenaur said gymnasts must continue to train over the summer or risk running behind schedule once the season begins.

“If you’re not training over the summer, you’re hurting yourself,” said Simenaur, a junior. “You have to train everyday in this sport. There’s no time off.”

The NCAA has tried to give student-athletes a break, Wallace said, by implementing an eight-week period in which football practices would be voluntary. Teams are unable to take attendance or punish players who do not attend practice.

“That has helped, but it’s still pretty much a year round thing if the [athlete] wants to be successful,” Wallace said.

COURSELOAD

A student-athlete’s pressure extends beyond the playing field. Academic standards create problems as well. In order to stay eligible, the NCAA requires student-athletes to stay in accordance with the university’s standards and complete a minimum number of credits relevant to the academic year the individual is in. The NCAA raised these requirements in the fall of 2003.

Temple requires student-athletes to maintain a 2.0 GPA following their freshman year in order to hold onto any scholarship money.

“On top of practice, on top of our weightlifting, we are also student-athletes,” said senior John Gross, an offensive lineman on the football team. “We have to be taking care of our grades first, and some of our papers, all our midterms, tests and whatnot. After that we have to come out here and practice, and that’s pretty much a daily routine, even weekends.”

Turoff, the men’s gymnastics coach, said he tries to be sensitive toward academic pressures his players might face, giving them extra study time if they are struggling.

“There’s a big compromise between practice and study time,” Turoff said. “It’s one of the few excuses to miss practice.”

Traveling to road matches also makes keeping up with academics difficult for student-athletes like Washko.

“You miss classes and you get behind,” Washko said. “Then you get more frustrated and then you have to stay up later and later doing work.”

With athletic practices, competition and schoolwork taking up large allotments of time, time management is crucial to a student-athlete’s success.

“Time management is your key and if you don’t know how to do that, you’re going to struggle,” cross country coach Stefanie Scalessa said.

Gross, a three-time member of the Big East Conference all-Academic team, said he finishes his schoolwork before doing anything else. He was recently nominated for the Draddy Trophy, which recognizes the best student-athletes in the country for combined athletic performance, academic success and community leadership.

Gross, a kinesiology major, has earned citations to both the Dean’s List and Athletics Director’s Honor Roll with a 3.32 GPA.

“First and foremost, you have to take care of all of your homework first, and after that, then you can also worry about watching TV and going out and having fun,” Gross said.

Washko, who attends the Tyler School of Art, said time management is difficult because of shuttling to and from Tyler.

“I do as much work as I can on the weekends depending on cross country meets,” Washko said. “It’s very hard to manage my time at this point. I don’t really get any free time.”

CATHARSIS

When student-athletes get free time, the means to relieve themselves of pressure is critical to their health, DiMino said. He cited heavy drinking and partying, as well as high risk activities like unprotected sex and driving at excessive speeds, as negative ways to relieve pressure.

There is no evidence Ambrogi took part in such activities. But Simenaur said he has seen teammates respond to pressure in negative ways.

“I see student-athletes when they’re working out and they’re doing school [work]; they have no free time,” he said. “Then when they actually get free time, I see student-athletes relieving themselves of that pressure so more intensely party-wise, drinking and [doing] drugs, and that can cause more problems than depression.”

Washko said she has seen the athletic results of teammates suffer because of excessive drinking.

“You can see it in their times and performances at practice and their general attitude at practice,” Washko said.

In her studies on childhood baseball in Philadelphia, Temple sociology professor Sherri Grasmuck found that teams that displayed the best mental health were the ones that placed an emphasis not only on winning, but on coping with emotions.

Members of the men’s gymnastics team confronted a teammate, Simenaur said. He did not specify why, but he credited Turoff for placing an emphasis on teammate support.

Scalessa said she has pulled players aside when she noticed unusual behavior, or when she received a report from a professor about absences from class. She has also recommended counseling.

INTERVENTION

Tuttleman Counseling Services assisted 1,493 students between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005. Specific statistics for student-athletes are not kept, but DiMino said the center has assisted a fair number of student-athletes over the past several years. Student-athletes, he said, suffer from the same range of problems that students suffer from. The most common problems are depression, anxiety, troubling relationships with family or friends and adjustment to college.

Farley said apathy, loss of energy, an inability to concentrate and decision-making difficulties are signs of depression that can show up in athletes.

Senior quarterback Mike McGann said he wasn’t sure if any of those signs were present in Ambrogi’s case.

A teammate of Ambrogi’s at St. Joseph’s Prep, McGann was among those who said they were not aware Ambrogi was suffering. McGann last saw Ambrogi Oct. 6, four days before his friend’s suicide.

“Kyle was a super individual,” McGann said. “He was a role model for everybody who he’s met and everybody that’s had an opportunity to meet him, and it will never be the same without him.”

But knowing a problem exists does not necessarily fix the situation for a student-athlete, or for any individual. In some instances, Wallace said, tragedies cannot be prevented.

“I have a sister whose daughter committed suicide and believe me, as a family we’d have loved to have stopped that,” Wallace said. “Sometimes things are just out of control. I don’t think there’s an answer to every situation.”

John Kopp can be reached at jpk85@juno.com.

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