Vulcans Under Pressure

Being a college athlete in Hawaii means more travel - and more stress.

Sports Writer Trixie Croad

Co-Author/Assistant Editor-in-Chief Aspen Mauch

Photographer Zach Gorski

“Living in Hawai‘i as a student athlete is rough on the body, in terms of stress mechanism” - Dr. Lincoln “Linc” Gotshalk, Professor of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences

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Being tucked away in a relatively isolated part of the country, UH Hilo’s athletes are often thousands of miles apart from their competitors. The closest university is over 200 miles north - and more importantly, you can’t get to it without a 50-minute flight. Most of the teams in the conference are based over 2,000 miles - a six-hour flight - and a 3-hour time difference away. This means the schedules of Vulcan athletes are unlike almost any other group of college teams in the United States.

One person at UH Hilo who understands the stresses of student athletes is kinesiology professor Lincoln “Linc” Gotshalk - or “Dr. G,” as he is commonly known around campus. As former associate athletic director and powerlifting coach at Temple University in Pennsylvania, Dr. Gotshalk knows that student athletes have a lot on their plate and further recognizes that this is heightened at UH Hilo because of the amount of traveling being done. “It can’t be matched, or maybe barely matched by other Hawaiian teams, but not by almost any team in the country,” Gotshalk said. This is why for the past six years Dr. Gotshalk and his team of students have been conducting a stress study, examining the stress that a season has on Vulcan athletes as well as regular students for control purposes.

Data is currently being collected from the athletic department's archives on just how much the Vulcan teams travel in terms of miles and time changes per season. Vulcans travel across the west coast for competition and sometimes experience up to four time changes in two weeks of travel. “There is research that shows frequent change in the body’s circadian rhythm causes stress… and the result of that is a rise in cortisol.” Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone and too much of it can cause serious health issues later in life. Through tests that are run in the lab, Gotshalk and his team of student assistants can determine signs of increased cortisol in athletes post-season. Their hypothesis is that student athletes at UH Hilo experience a higher increase in cortisol than both non-student athletes and students from other colleges, although they do not have data to compare to other schools at this stage.

Some of the tests run on athletes include resting heart rate and blood pressure, circumference measurements of waist and legs, and most importantly, DEXA [dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry] scans. The DEXA machine is the kinesiology lab’s “pride and joy.” This machine can scan the makeup of a body with a simple five minute scan, which is how the main aspect of this study, fat distribution, is measured. Benn Siemers is the student director of the lab and explains that where fat is distributed indicates levels of cortisol. “There is a certain type of fat called android fat that you can’t burn off with exercise,” Siemers said. “So athletes lose normal fat but may gain ‘stress fat’ (android fat) in the legs, hips and trunk. This causes other bodily changes like heightened resting heart rate and blood pressure.” Currently, Dr. Gotshalk and his team are working on analyzing data; Gotshalk says he intends to collaborate with students to write papers on the findings of the data collected over the past six years.

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The first paper will likely be on Women’s Basketball, followed by Men’s Basketball, but planning is still in the discussion phase. Although full data analysis is not yet complete, Gotshalk says there are already some interesting findings including a significant increase in fat distribution to the trunk and in blood pressure at the end of a season compared to before.

When describing the success of the stress study both Siemers and Gotshalk express that they have done the best but unfortunately resources have been limited. “I’ve done the best I possibly could with the resources I've had but with more funding, there are many more things I could have done to tweak this system,” Gotshalk said. He explains that it has been really difficult to make progress with the study because most of the students who work with it are only around for a short period of time before the next ones come through for their directed study credits. “I almost have new students every year because I haven’t been able to get funding for paid positions in the lab.” Another aspect that Gotshalk says has made collecting data difficult is cooperation from the coaches. Some coaches have been willing participants, but others have not. “It would be good to have some kind of incentive to be able to present to the coaches so that we could get more consistent test subjects”

Both Gotshalk and Sievers - a former member of the soccer team at UH Hilo - acknowledge that along with the body dealing with time change, there are many additional aspects of traveling for competition that can increase stress. “Living in Hawai‘i as a student athlete is rough on the body, in terms of stress mechanism,” Gotshalk explains. While on the road, student athletes eat differently, endure long flights are car rides, are constantly with their teammates, have back to back competition in a condensed time period, and experience a sometimes dramatically different climate to name a few. To give an idea of what a Vulcans travel itinerary entails, volleyball player Siera Green describes a typical trip to the mainland and the stresses that come along with it.

“A trip to the mainland feels like a really big ordeal,” Green said. “We have a 45-minute flight to Honolulu and then about a six hour flight to California. We get two big vans and there is usually a long drive from the airport to the hotel and by the time we get there everyone is absolutely drained. The hotels we stay in are really nice, and it's a bonus to stay in one hotel if our games are close but there are times when we we have to stay in three or more hotels during a trip. It can be difficult only eating out, we go to fast food places and restaurants for every meal and it can be hard to choose the best things to eat. Being with the team non-stop for an entire week can be pretty draining but luckily, we all got along really well this past season so we didn't have issues. You get really close with people you wouldn't have otherwise and we make so many memories. It is stressful, but it is a lot of fun and totally worth it!”

Perhaps the most impactful stressor of travel for Vulcans is having to miss classes, yet having to continue their studies while on the road. When talking to some student athletes about their travel schedules, missing school was identified as being the most stressful aspect of traveling. Bailey Gaspar, who plays softball, said that “when we came back from our last road trip, I had three tests the week we got back. It’s up to us as athletes to stay up with our work but it is tough on the road… I am still trying to catch up and we have been back for two weeks now.”

Dr. Gotshalk is the Director of the Laboratory for Exercise Sciences, and consistently manages multiple research projects. According to his biography from the Kinesiology Department, in addition to the women’s and men’s athletic team seasonal stress study, Dr. Gotshalk is involved in the study of obesity and diabetes in Hawaiian children, the effect of altitude on local muscle function during performance, neuromuscular and biomechanical stresses on the knee during performance, and much more. If you are interested in learning valuable research techniques and assisting in Dr. Gotshalk’s investigations, contact Dr. Gotshalk at (808) 932-7052 or gotshalk@hawaii.edu to learn more about volunteering for continuing studies in Fall 2017.

Disclosure: Trixie Croad is currently a student of Dr. Gotshalk, and has been a test subject in his studies. Dr. Gotshalk is the father of Ke Kalahea’s circulation manager, Drew Gotshalk.