It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated many aspects of day-to-day life. Among those who have been rattled by these changes are athletes whose lives revolve around structure and community. Athletes have faced both immediate changes in their training and competition seasons and have had to come to terms with the longer-term implications of how the pandemic is shaping their athletic careers. These changes can have a ripple effect on not only their physical health but also their mental and emotional health.
The abrupt end of seasons last spring as well as last minute cancellations of fall sports have left athletes in a state of loss and uncertainty. According to a study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), many athletes are experiencing distress since the onset of the pandemic:
“Over a third [of 37,000+ participants] reported experiencing sleep difficulties, more than a quarter reported feelings of sadness and a sense of loss, and 1 in 12 reported feeling so depressed it has been difficult to function, ‘constantly’ or ‘most every day.’”The NCAA
If you are feeling stressed, frustrated, or disappointed because of the implications of the pandemic, know that you are not alone. Athletes especially are used to being a part of a community, following a structured schedule, and focusing on achievable goals, all of which are aspects of sport that have been up in the air due to the pandemic. The challenges associated with both uncertainty toward and loss of sport are complex and affect everyone differently, but it can be helpful to break down some reasons why you might be feeling out of sorts right now.
Community & Social Support
Social distancing is just one reason why it might be more difficult to feel the sense of community that you’re used to finding through athletics. The bond athletes have with each other can be like no other, which means it might be especially frustrating to have disruptions in team dynamics right now. Whether you’re no longer allowed to train as a team or your practice time has been drastically reduced, feeling alone is a completely understandable reaction to the current situation.
To cope with these feelings, it can help to stay in contact with your teammates and coaches. Although face-to-face interactions might be limited at best, it is still possible to communicate with those on your team over text, email, phone calls, and video chat. Consistently and frequently staying in touch with teammates and coaches will help you keep your social support bubble afloat, and maintaining a strong social support system is one of the strongest predictors of positive mental and emotional health.
Structure & Resources
Knowing exactly where you need to be and what you need to do is a significant part of the athlete experience, and it is also one that has changed drastically in response to the pandemic. For many student-athletes, seasons have been cancelled, and there is a limit to the number of hours they can spend training. The lack of structure and increase in free time can feel suffocating rather than freeing, and finding new ways to direct your time and energy might seem unappealing or nearly impossible. If you are looking for ways to create either more structure or more variety in your day-to-day life though, here are some ideas that could help:
- Choose a set time that you will complete different tasks throughout the day and mark them in your calendar–it’s okay if these tasks are simple! (Working out, calling a friend, reading).
- Check in frequently with others.
- Give a new hobby a try! Reading, cooking/baking, writing, walking, and listening to music or podcasts are a few activities that bode fairly well with the current guidelines and restrictions.
- Set alarms on your phone for when you’re engaging in different activities, whether they are watching TV or writing a paper–this way, you’ll stay more aware of how you’re spending your time.
- Relax—try not to put too much pressure on yourself to follow a schedule or stick to a routine. Just getting through the day might take all the effort you have, and that’s totally okay.
In addition to creating some semblance of structure, knowing how to utilize the resources available to you can help you create more balance. While this might sound like a good idea, not many athletes are aware of how to connect with mental health professionals. Findings in the NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-Being study support that mental health resources are less accessible than physical health resources—“While 80% reported knowing how to access a medical provider for physical health needs, 60% of men and 55% of women reported that they know how to access mental health support in their current location.” If you’re looking to connect with a mental health provider who has experience working with athletes, feel free to try out our Athlete-Provider Match.
Not knowing either when or whether competitive seasons will resume might make it difficult to feel motivated to train. On top of that, feelings of stress and anxiety might be clouding your ability to see your athletic goals clearly. According to the NCAA study, there are many emotional barriers that are keeping athletes from training as they normally would, including fear of exposure to COVID-19 (43%), lack of motivation (40%), feelings of stress or anxiety (21%), and sadness or depression (13%).
Staying connected with coaches and teammates is a hugely important aspect of maintaining a positive outlook. If possible, reach out to your coaches to discuss how you can set achievable goals during this time. Additionally, check in with your teammates about the goals they have set and find ways to encourage each other. Athletes tend to be forward-thinking, and finding new or different ways to focus on growing and improving is a part of the game even when there isn’t a pandemic.
Closure & the Future
From youth who are no longer able to participate in P.E. classes to high school student-athletes who are left to navigate an even more ambiguous recruiting process, the whole world of sports is on edge. One New York Times article even dubbed the current situation as “the greatest crisis in the history of college athletics,” and for seniors whose athletic careers ended without closure, right now might be a particularly difficult and confusing time.
As you’ve probably heard one too many times from your coaches: you should always be prepared. At the same time, as you’ve probably heard too many times from the news: no one knows exactly what the future looks like. Right now, moving forward might look like exploring unconventional ways to improve as an athlete. Perhaps some downtime, cross-training, focusing on the mental aspect of your sport, and/or spending more time on proper rehab and recovery (stretching, sleeping, and hydrating!) will allow you to spend some time nurturing not only your physical health, but also your mental and emotional health.
This is a tough time for student-athletes, which means it’s also an important time to reach out for support. If you think you would benefit from additional guidance during this time, know that it is available for you!