COVID-19 has had obvious repercussions on what used to be considered everyday norms for athletes – programs like training camps, sports practices, and athletic centers have all been either shut down or compromised, causing loss of jobs, loss of spirit within the athletic field, and worries about the future. But how has this affected the physical and mental wellness of student athletes?
While the pandemic has raised clear concerns over the physical health of student-athletes (from possible heart damage links to increased risks due to pre-existing conditions like asthma), it is also important to consider its effects on mental health.
Dealing With Disappointment
Many coaches note dealing with disappointment as their biggest concern for their athletes throughout the pandemic. Sports seasons, games, and practices have been cancelled or limited, which has caused many athletes to struggle with confronting these losses.
According to Ryan Virtue of Positive Coaching Alliance, this is a time for coaches to take a step back and evaluate how they lead, teach, and play in order to provide the best support for their athletes. While athletes have dealt with losing games, this is a new type of loss that is unfamiliar for everyone.
Furthermore, results of a recent NCAA Student-Athlete Covid-19 Wellbeing Study, surveying over 37,000 student-athletes, a majority of participants indicated experiencing high levels of mental distress due to the pandemic, and almost 50% indicated feelings of anxiety due to a fear of Covid. In addition, various student-athletes have expressed sadness over their sports seasons being cancelled and worries about how they can stay safe while also playing team sports.
Maintaining Physical Well Being
Along with mental health crises that have risen, there are also concerns with maintaining physical health. With the pandemic shutting down gyms and sports practices, finding ways to stay fit and active has become more of a struggle. Although sports practices have started up again, and some gyms have followed social distancing guidelines to re-open partially, many fitness classes have continued online or outdoors.
For most teens/high schoolers, they rely on their gym classes in school for fitness. This usually involves simple exercises that can be done from home in small spaces (such as yoga or cardio). Others opt for outdoor options, such as cycling classes, yoga, pilates, and other classes that are spread out in outdoor spaces, making them COVID-friendly. Additionally, many student-athletes can find classes through their coaches’ recommendations.
However despite these online and outdoor options, an overwhelming majority of teens and young students have not been able to participate in these classes since the pandemic, due to health, financial, or other safety concerns. This is detrimental, as exercise is critical in staying physically and mentally healthy during this time.
Strong Communication With Team
Consistency and sustained motivation to stay active can be encouraged by coaches, counselors, family members, and peers. Thus, given the current situation with COVID-19, it is more vital than ever for coaches to stay connected with their athletes.
Even with the difficult barriers, 90% of student-athletes reported that communicating with their coaches and teammates on a weekly basis helped them to feel more positive about the current situation. The role of coaches is larger than ever during these trying times, as many are looking for a mentor to lean on for guidance in navigating uncertain situations.
Focus on what you can control during these unprecedented times — keeping in touch, strengthening existing relationships, and trying to maintain your physical health. It is important to acknowledge the disappointment that athletes feel, and then shift towards finding ways to stay connected to your athletes and building motivation and routine.
The National Federation of State High School Associations recommends that coaches do everything in their power to provide students with a sense of normalcy. As times are uncertain and ever-changing, coaches need to be creative in order to stay engaged and involved in the lives of their student-athletes.
Responsibility of Coaches
Whether it’s through weekly Zoom calls or activity nights or group chats, it is pertinent that coaches schedule times each week for teammates to interact in place of practice sessions that would have normally been held. Although physical contact may be difficult, coaches can set short term goals for individual players to practice on their own and encourage team building exercises. Try some of the following options:
- Weekly Zoom calls at the same time you would originally have sports practice
- Team building exercises (example: sharing a personal high and a low for each athlete that week)
- Individual check-ins (through FaceTime or call) with athletes
- Maintaining contact through group chats & social media
- Sharing pictures/videos of athletes fulfilling short-term sports goals
Many athletes look to their coaches for help with life skills beyond just sports, and these times are perfect for setting good examples of resilience and personal growth for your student-athletes. As tough as these times are for athletes, it is a great learning opportunity to come out more resilient, focus on a mindset of growth, and help build leaders in and out of sports.
These are skills that will enormously benefit athletes during and after the pandemic, and it is up to coaches to take the lead in steering your athletes to overcome these challenges. Don’t know where or how to start? Here are some resources:
- For interactive online games that can help with wellness: https://mentalhealthdeltadivision.com/interactive-games/
- For personal development and other free online courses: https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being
Okaya can also help you keep in touch and in check with your athletes. Try the app to see how you can build strong relationships and monitor their wellness throughout the pandemic and beyond.