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Credit: Catherine Liang

 Varsity sports at Penn are as demanding as they are impressive. Fencing is no different. 

Practices and weight training take up about 15 hours of my week. While I enjoy practicing and competing with my teammates, there’s a little voice in the back of my mind that constantly reminds me how little time I have in a day. That voice gets steadily louder as midterms and finals near. With a balancing act like no other, it becomes exceedingly difficult for student-athletes at Penn to perform well without forgoing their physical and mental health.

Travel often comes at the price of our physical health. We spend hours getting ourselves into tip-top shape and mentally preparing for tournaments. Unfortunately, many of the hours of weight lifting and mock tournaments fall to the wayside when we travel.

It is far more challenging for us to keep up our healthy routines when we are on the road. The food we eat at turnpikes and airports is less healthy. Flight times can be unpredictable and traffic is a funny thing when you’re on the road. The earliest we get back to campus is 9pm. It’s hard for some of us to finish our homework or get a few hours of rest on a bus or plane.

Leaving campus to go to competitions is an unavoidable feature of the student-athlete experience at Penn. It would be great if we could have more of our tournaments on-campus, but when most of our competition is situated far away, we often have to compromise. I get that. Nevertheless, there should be increased efforts to not schedule tournaments too close to finals or to try to coordinate tournaments closer to campus. There are other ways unique to each team’s situation to improve the physical health situation that we face.  

Penn Athletics began to address mental health more thoroughly after the high-profile deaths by suicide of Penn track athletes Madison Holleran and Timothy Hamlett

Penn Athletics has strengthened its connection to CAPS over the years through introductory team meetings that inform athletes of the resources around them, Dr. Joel Fish, the Penn Athletics sports psychologist, I CARE, and mental health questionnaires during physicals. Penn Athletics has made a concerted efforts to make sure that our coaches and teammates are more cognizant of our wellbeing.

Nevertheless, it continues to be difficult for Penn athletes to easily access Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Our practices normally end around 6 or 7pm, while CAPS closes at 7pm on Mondays through Thursdays and at 5pm on Fridays. With waiting times of around 7 to 10 days and Penn’s undergraduate population of more than 10,000 students, the numbers tell us that CAPS needs to become more accessible to all of us. 

Most importantly, we need to consider student-athletes’ mental health in tandem with their physical health. Our conditioning drills and other workouts certainly help us both physically and mentally. However, as I mentioned before, many of the improvements we make are compromised for the constraints of competitions. The fact that our routines are constantly in flux, along with the academic requirements that await us as soon as we get back to campus, make it hard to consistently improve.

Physical and mental health are inextricably bound. The unhealthy food we tend to eat before tournaments, our lack of sleep as a result of unpredictable travel schedules, and other stresses of travel make it a challenge to keep everything in balance.

From my first year at Penn, I believe that it is not just the pressure of performing as an athlete that puts our health at stake. It's the toxic competitiveness and an insatiable desire to outperform everybody around you that permeate Penn's hypercompetitive culture. Collegiate sports, at Penn and elsewhere, foster and heighten insecurities and feelings of inadequacy that can devolve into anxiety and depression. What’s unique about athletics at Penn is that the stakes feel that much higher.

Fencing has become such an integral part of my experience at Penn. It’s given me an irreplaceable outlet to improve myself and meet other people. However, we need to think critically about the pressures that athletes face so we can make the Penn Athletics experience more accommodating. An effort to focus on both the physical and mental health of Penn athletes will have far-reaching effects that will extend beyond Penn Athletics.


ALEX SILBERZWEIG is a College sophomore from New York, studying mathematics and economics. Her email address is alexsil@sas.upenn.edu.

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