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The COVID-19 Impact: Athletes can build resiliency, sense of identity through sports, but pandemic can be threat to mental health
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The COVID-19 Impact: Mental Health

The COVID-19 Impact: Athletes can build resiliency, sense of identity through sports, but pandemic can be threat to mental health

From the The COVID-19 Impact: How pandemic can impact teen athletes' mental health, and what can help prevent issues series
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John Kosydar said he has seen his fair share of offseason workouts and practices over the years.

Multiple Colts teams, as well as other teams throughout the state, returned to their campuses for the first voluntary offseason workouts in months. It marked an end to a months-long period without any PIAA competition or practices of any kind due to the coronavirus pandemic that shut down sports March 12.

When Cedar Cliff opened its doors and fields for the first time, Kosydar, the school’s athletic director, noticed something different.

“That first day when I was out there to see how many kids were coming out for football and stuff like that, there was more excitement then than I’ve seen in a long time when kids come out for summer workouts. Summer workouts are not all fun and games,” he said. “It did kind of strike me, like, ‘Wow, these kids really missed it.’”

It has not been without speed bumps. Cedar Cliff’s boys soccer and field hockey teams halted workouts not long after they resumed when one player on each team tested positive for COVID-19. The Colts’ baseball team, playing in the Central Penn Varsity League at In the Net in Palmyra, dropped out early after a positive test as well. And Shippensburg football and Big Spring girls volleyball also stopped workouts in recent weeks due to reported positive test results.

For weeks coaches and athletic directors have mentioned the importance of getting their high school athletes back out on the field, or on the court. They cited mental health and stability as the reason, a want to return the teens to some form of normalcy and reunite them with their peers and coaches.

The pandemic has the potential to impact the mental health of high school and college athletes, a population that has experienced significant turmoil in everyday lives after spring seasons were canceled while fall sports are in danger of the same fate.

The disrupted daily rhythms student-athletes have grown accustomed to, plus the social and physical aspects of sports that were lost for months, can cause anxiety and stress, and potential worse issues, some local psychology experts like Dr. Michele Patterson Ford, a professor at Dickinson College, said.

“Yes, this is going to have a lasting impact on them,” Ford said. “That lasting impact may not necessarily be a bad thing.”

“I feel for the seniors who didn’t get their last season … that’s a harder thing to deal with. Just depending on how they’ve been taught just to deal with adversity, it could put them in a risky situation.”

The COVID-19 Impact: Mix of frustration, increased caution after Cedar Cliff boys soccer returns from quarantine

Importance of sports

One of the primary reasons why the loss of a sports season, or a summer in which normal athletic routines have been completely disrupted, can cause anxiety and stress in teens and college students is the way they perceive themselves in relation to the sports they play.

“When I think of student athletes, one of their main ways of coping [with everyday life] is their sport,” Ford said. “It’s part of their identity.”

The same can be said for musicians or artists who no longer have the same outlet during the last four months of at-home quarantine. Children’s identities can be wrapped up in the activities they take the most joy in.

It’s a reason why coaches and athletic directors were excited to bring back offseason workouts.

“And it’s an outlet,” Kosydar said. “For any of us, we all need outlets for stress relief and just being able to do some other things.”

“It feels grounding to some degree,” Ford said.

It has to be a healthy relationship, though. If an athlete’s identity is too ingrained in the sport they play, they could struggle to cope with an extended period without that sport.

One of the aspects Penn State’s Dr. Carl Ohlson has focused on with college athletes he’s worked with the last few months is helping them discover or remember “Why did you get into this sport to begin with?”

“They remember what they love about the sport,” said Ohlson, who works in PSU’s athletic department and focuses on the psychology of elite performance with the university’s athletic programs and is also a member of the Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet. “It’s easy to forget in an emotional moment and critical to get up and move forward.”

“Most folks in that age group have had that day where they didn’t practice as hard as they could have. … And so many of them are saying, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to get back and give it everything I have.’”

The social aspect of being around peers and friends is also important. Humans are social creatures by nature, and living apart from their normal social circle for long periods of time can be troubling. Returning 15, 16, 17 and 18 year olds to a variation of their old normal lives can be important for their mental health.

“I look back on my own experience from high school, and all my memories from high school are usually when I was with my friends playing sports. I just think kids need to be able to be with their friends,” Cumberland Valley AD Mike Craig said. “Obviously, I’m biased, I’m an athletic director. I want them to be out playing sports.”

The COVID-19 Impact: Diagnosed with depression, Northern's Emma Rosensteel is focused on senior season, staying positive amidst pandemic

Building resiliency

Something that may set up high school athletes to handle the pandemic, and the losses that come from it, is their ability to handle loss and adversity from a lifetime of playing sports.

It’s a lesson all athletes learn early on — figuring out how to cope with losing a game or missing others because of injury. It builds resilience during formative years. “For a long time, they’ve had lots of opportunities to win and lots of opportunities to lose,” Ford said.

Ford said that resilience can be something an athlete leans on during the pandemic, a different and far larger form of adversity. But it isn’t a guarantee they’re ready to cope with the emotional stress brought on by the pandemic. That is in part because neither the student-athletes nor their parents, coaches and teachers have ever lived through a global pandemic. There is no reference point from which to build off, no previous lesson learned that can be applied to the last few months.

“You develop a sort of way to deal with [lost games and injuries]. So what’s different is no one has developed a way to deal with this,” Ford said. “This was unexpected, it was not planned for, it was the proverbial pulling the rug out from someone.”

“I think it’s fair to say we as a population can feel particularly vulnerable right now,” Dr. Natalie Hernandez DePalma said, speaking of the general population, not just student-athletes.

DePalma is an assistant director of clinical services at Penn State’s psychology services, which oversees thousands of students a year. She’s also a member of the Big Ten Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet, which was formed in the spring. She has heard from some students at Penn State that said they’re “managing quite well.” A variety of factors can be at play for why some people can cope better than others. A family’s employment status and ability to work from home or whether the student or family members are at-risk could play a role.

Then there are college freshmen who were living away from home for the first time, attending college for the first time and experience a world of life changes in the lead-up to the pandemic.

“I have to remind myself, for a lot of 19-year-olds, they’re still experience a dramatic amount of brain growth,” Hernandez DePalma said. “They’re also sometimes dealing with a lot of dramatic change. … It’s an interesting thing to watch the students and how they have managed this stress.”

Teens that don’t have “healthy coping skills,” social skills and a strong support system of friends and family could struggle to cope with the pandemic, Ford said.

The COVID-19 Impact: Dickinson professor outlines mental health warning signs, how to monitor teens

The importance of routine

Following daily routine can also help athletes cope.

That is tough when every bit of life’s normal rhythm — eight hours at school, followed by practice or a game after, dinner, homework, then bed — has been upended in the last four months.

Instead they went without practices or games for months participated in virtual learning from home with various degrees of success.

“You need to develop a routine,” Ford said. “For kids — 16, 17 and 18 — who are competing at the level of competitive high school athletics or college athletics, this has been a good part of their life, possibly since they were 2 years old.”

Going out for a run or a walk to get basic exercise can help, she said. Some high school teams sent workout plans for their players to follow if they could the last few months.

The last few months have been a learning opportunity. At Penn State, Ohlson and Hernandez DePalma have worked to encourage new routines that can be done from home or remotely. That goes beyond waking up at the same time and practicing at the same time, too. Proper nutrition, exercise, relaxation time and time for “intellectual pursuits” can provide routine and meaning.

“A lot of times they’ll talk about the things everybody needs,” Hernandez DePalma said.

Sometimes that involves a mindset change. Hernandez DePalma said she’s worked with students who “were struggling with the positives of this unintended break.” That could be the opportunity to read a new book, or more time with family, for example. Changing a student’s mindset to embrace some new opportunities of secluding at home could open up added benefits, among them developing new habits or spending time learning about oneself.

That even applies to the coaches and athletic directors working with students.

“I found out during this I’m not very well-rounded,” said Craig, who has had more time than ever to focus on yard work.

‘Don’t wait’

Mechanicsburg AD Seth Pehanich said the school district’s superintendent, Dr. Mark Leidy, has stressed students have resources at their disposal if they need counseling. Pehanich said Mechanicsburg is “way out in front.” Guidance counselors are available on Zoom for the district’s students to talk to.

At Cumberland Valley, kids have access to a student assistance program, Craig said. And Cedar Cliff works with Laurel Life, which offers behavioral and educational services throughout the midstate, AD John Kosydar said.

Access to counseling is important. But it also falls on parents, coaches and teachers to keep an eye on their kids to spot any signs of mental health trouble.

“I know the thing that we’ve always stressed with the teachers, coaches and everyone is just having that” relationship with students where they know them well enough to spot warning signs, Kosydar said.

Hernandez DePalma said adults should “find a platform that might be a little more comfortable to chat.” That could be a phone call, in person or Zoom, depending on the child. The increased use of texting and social media might alter how a teen wishes to communicate.

Adults should watch for a few different warning signs in their kids, including drastic, sustained mood changes, disinterest in activities they typically enjoy and eating and sleeping abnormalities, Ford said. These can be “red flags,” she said.

Typically, if those changes last at least two weeks, adults should intervene by talking to their child or looking into counseling.

“Don’t wait,” Ford said.

Email Jake Adams at jadams@cumberlink.com or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520

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