Wichita State student-athletes’ journeys through mental health struggles


Sean Marty

The Wichita State volleyball team gathers in a huddle after a point during WSU’s game against Houston on March 26 inside Charles Koch Arena.

Just like many athletes across the country, men’s tennis player Marius Frosa struggled in adjusting to the collegiate level.

Frosa, a Galati, Romania native, has played the last five seasons with the Shockers. Wichita State men’s tennis coach Danny Bryan said Frosa had a difficult transition to WSU as he struggled with a negative mindset during matches on top of adjusting to a new country.   

“He would get really down on himself, he’d be really tough on himself. We definitely went through some tough times with him,” Bryan said. “A couple years ago he started to see things differently. I think the stuff at the beginning was the pressure he was putting on himself and he didn’t know how to handle it yet. He was willing to make those changes with his mentality.”

Frosa isn’t the only one who has been open with his struggles. Murkel Dellien, Frosa’s teammate is also adjusting to a new country and culture. Dellien said that a mindset change has paid dividends this season after having to quarantine on top of everything he was dealing with.

“I couldn’t find my game on the court and I was really struggling mentally,” Dellien said. “After that, I came back stronger to practice and with the right mentality. Everything started with the first match in Texas against Texas Tech. It was the start of building my confidence then, it was really important for me. Now, that match against Pepperdine was special but at the same time was an extra push for me to believe that I can be that kind of player.”

With student-athletes, their mental health has been especially affected after the COVID-19 pandemic took away sports. Many athletes relied on sports as an escape but the pandemic took that away from them.

For volleyball junior Megan Taflinger, the sports cancellations especially played a factor as the team had to slowly adjust to just playing against their teammates in practice with the lack of games. 

“I think the ability to play against other teams is to test to see how good of a team you are,” Taflinger said. “Our team has stayed motivated during this whole thing as well as our coaches. But it would be nice to play someone else to see where we’re at. We don’t really have any perception on that scale. We’re only playing against each other.”

For cross country head coach Kirk Hunter he felt that missing out on those during the fall played a greater factor, especially since many of his athletes missed out practice after the Track and Field season was prematurely canceled last year. 

“Right now, the only things these kids have to hold on to is practice,” Hunter said. “Last spring, when they took away the competition and the practices, it just destroyed my kids. My concern would be if we lose that. If we lose that too, then I’m going to be very worried about my student-athletes. Right now, I think we can maintain as long as we at least have our practices, for now.”

In one of the most mentally grueling sports that there is, junior Marcus Wochner said it has been challenging mentally over the years. On top of having to adjust to a new school, Wochner has to adjust to a new country. 

Wochner, a Denmark native, originally arrived in the United States three years ago when he went to play golf at Odessa Community College. 

Wochner said the adjustment to a new country has been a difficult one. 

“It’s been very different, especially the culture,” Wochner said. “The most different thing has been mostly everything basically.”

Wochner said his enjoyment of golf has helped his mental health.

“I don’t want to be overfocused on the golf course but I’d rather have fun and just play golf,” Wochner said. “Either you hit a good or a bad bad shot so why not get it over with quicker instead of thinking about a whole lot. Just hit the shot, it’s either a good one or a bad one. Basically, just have fun with it. That’s the biggest difference I’ve had over the last three weeks.”

Gretchen Torline has served as the Director of Athletic Academic Services for WSU Athletics for the past 30 years. Torline said that she has seen plenty of mental health issues take place during her time at WSU especially with what the student-athletes have to juggle with their workload.

“I’ve seen it all along, I think students in general it’s tough even if they’re working a full-time job and taking a full load of classes, it’s a lot,” Torline said. “I think some of them put a lot of pressure on themselves. It is like a full-time job with everything that they have to do with practice and conditioning and athletic training. They have a lot of stuff to do.”

Torline said COVID-19 hit student-athletes especially hard at the onset because they sports taken away from them. But even after they came back, the athletes were constricted to a “bubble” environment, which played an even greater factor on their mental health.

“They had sports taken away but even when they came back, they could practice and compete, they couldn’t go out and see people,” Torline said. “I know I talked with some men’s basketball players when the season was over and especially the new kids felt like they missed out on a lot. They just never got a feeling of the true experience of being in college and competing.”

Torline said that virtual learning hit her athletes especially hard and the chance that next semester will have face-to-face learning has excited many of them.

“That was a huge struggle for a lot of my student-athletes,” Torline said. “It’s hard. They really didn’t like learning virtually. You can’t connect and you don’t have that interpersonal communication with your professor and other students in the class.”

Torline said that having these athletes become more open about their mental health struggles can further help eliminate the stigma around.

“It’s very important and that’s why we try to do a lot of education with them and let them know that talking about it and letting people know that you’re struggling mentally is not anything of a sign of weakness,” Torline said. “That’s kind of hard for athletes sometimes, they want to be strong and tough and push through and they have some issues that they feel is a sign of weakness. I think the stigma is going away on that and we hope more and more.”

This story was produced by WSU’s Advanced News Reporting class as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies, including The Sunflower, working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.