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UPenn tragedy sparks conversation about student-athletes’ well-being

Published: February 5, 2014, 6:49 pm ET
Collegian Reporter

Madison Holleran, a freshman member of the University of Pennsylvania track team, jumped to her death from a parking garage two weeks ago. The New York Daily News reported a family friend had said her suicide was a result of the stress of wanting to excel in academics and athletics.

Steve Noles, a clinical and sports psychologist for University of Richmond, said he believed excessive stress in student-athletes was an issue that needed more attention.

In light of Holleran’s suicide and the perceived reasons behind it, Lori Taylor, the University of Richmond women’s track and cross country coach, contacted her athletes. She wanted to stress the importance of the overall well-being of Richmond student-athletes, she said.

A day after Holleran’s suicide occurred, Westhampton College Dean Juliette Landphair contacted Taylor to make sure she knew what had happened, and to check in to see how the team was doing, Taylor said.

Because Richmond is a smaller university that functions more as a community, it is easier to get to know each athlete and recognize when he or she is in need of help, Taylor said. Student-athletes have on-campus resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the deans, their coaches and their teammates.

The pressure put on collegiate student-athletes has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, Taylor said. Although pressure can come from coaches and parents, many times the athletes put a large amount of pressure on themselves, she said. Taylor ran at Virginia Tech, and has a personal idea of what it means to be an athlete at the collegiate level, she said.

The society we live in today has a huge influence on the pressure these athletes face, Taylor said. More opportunities, especially for women, bring greater expectations to perform, she said.

The expectations of young people are affecting everyone, not just athletes. Whether it be the pressure to be admitted to the right college, do well academically, or perform on the athletic field, it’s hard to escape the extremely high expectations put on students, Taylor said.

Jill Prentice, a senior member of the women’s track and cross country teams, said she had seen other athletes overly stressed, and that she often experienced that feeling herself.

“Our coach is really great though and meets with us biweekly to make sure that we are feeling all right mentally and physically,” Prentice said. “She adjusts the team’s workouts if she finds we are having a rough week.”

Patrick Love, a former member of the men’s track and cross country teams, said: “Balancing a training schedule of over 20 hours a week, in addition to being a full-time student can make some student-athletes stressed. However, my coaches and teammates provide a healthy outlet for discussion about the heavy workload that is associated with being a student-athlete.”

Noles said discussions related to mental health issues usually happened in one-on-one meetings with a student-athlete. Such discussions are reactive in nature and he would prefer to see a more proactive approach, he said.

“The most important thing is to recognize if there’s a problem, and talk about it,” Taylor said. “It’s cases like Holleran’s, where you can’t see the warning signs, that are scary.”

Contact reporter Olivia Simons at

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