Calling All Student-Athletes : You Are Not Alone
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
How COVID-19 is Affecting the Mental Well-Being of Student-Athletes
We know what you’re thinking: “I just can’t stand to read one more article about COVID-19.” *exits the page* and we understand. We, too, shy away from reading about it; the pandemic that our society seems to be in orbit around, but hear us out. This is not another one of “those” articles. In fact, this is quite the opposite; we’re here to address the effects this pandemic may have on your well-being as a student-athlete. Furthermore, we’re going to confront these effects head-on and implement strategies to deal with them. So, if you want to get back to the plain and simple fact that our world revolves around the sun and not COVID-19, stick with us and keep reading because we’re going after it!
Girls Softball team back on the field with COVID-19 protocols.
Daily COVID-19 tests, incessant quarantine periods, and canceled competition are among some of the uncertainties athletes currently endure. Luckily, some teams are able to carry out competition within their conference; however, travel restrictions can still limit the extent of each season or cancel them altogether (Carmen, Graves, Slinde, & James, 2021). Training without any goal in mind, meets to look forward to, or games to envision can become monotonous and frustrating. A positive test may derail your training goals or competitive season by sending you into an isolation period to obsess over what you are missing.
Rather than focusing on getting back to health, you may be worried about how your future ability to perform might suffer. This increase in stress may inhibit your immune system from fighting off the virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2021). You may find that in addition to the physical decline that you face comes a mental stress that can be just as debilitating. Left in isolation to ruminate on the lack of progress you’re making on the field, loss of social interactions with teammates, and the tireless hurdles to get back to sport can take a mental toll that may outlast your isolation period and follow you back into competition.
“[practicing every day without the opportunity to compete is] like being stuck in limbo” -Former Women’s Cross Country Runner at Arizona State University.
(Carmen et al. 2021)
ASU women’s cross country & track runners at practice. From “Senior season in a pandemic: How COVID-19 altered futures of ASU athletes”, by Carmen, E., Graves, M., Slinde, E., James, P., 2021, https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2021/01/22/asu-seniors-athletes-covid19-pandemic/.
Feelings of guilt might emerge when considering the impact of your positive test on not only you as an individual, but on your team as a whole. While some teammates may be empathetic during these unprecedented times, others may be resentful of the widespread impact the positive test forces onto the team. This week you, next week them. If there is one thing for certain during this time period, it is that nothing is guaranteed.
The status of student-athletes’ well-being have suffered at alarming rates (see Figure 1) during the pandemic — this is a call for action. Resources and services to aid in mental health awareness and treatment, both on and off the field, are imperative to increase overall levels of mental well-being of student-athletes. Now, more than ever, we need services that are accessible and practical for student-athletes in all divisions. Implementation of these practices should be viewed as non-negotiable by the athletes, coaching staff, athletic departments, and universities. Acknowledging the mild to severe effects of the onset of the pandemic the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Well-Being Survey examined the impact of the pandemic on the physical and mental well-being of student-athletes.
Survey Shows Student-Athletes Grappling with Mental Health Issues
Adapted from the NCAA student-athlete well-being survey executive summary, by NCAA, Spring 2020.
“In most instances the rate of mental health concerns experienced [reported between April-May 2020] were 150%-250% higher than historically reported by NCAA student-athletes [in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment]” (NCAA, 2020).
The COVID-19 epidemic has rippling effects that affect athletes of all calibers. As noted by Michael Phelps in the HBO original documentary The Weight of Gold, “The cancellation of sports pales in comparison to the tragedies that COVID-19 has caused all over the world, but the impact isn’t just on people’s physical health. It’s also dangerous to [one’s] mental health.” The cancellation of sport [seasons] brings about fear, disruption, uncertainty, and isolation (Rapkin, Phelps, Carlisle, O’Hara Lynch, Nelson, et al., 2020, 2:05).
Now, we know you may be thinking, “ok, well, Michael Phelps is an Olympian, how is he relatable to me? We are not the same,” and while there are obvious differences, there is also a common variable between you and him: being an athlete. You think and you revolve around being just that... an athlete. Though you are a student-athlete, you may very well focus most of your attention and efforts on your sport and being the best. Thus, regardless of the level of sport which you compete at, collegiate or Olympic, when that is stripped away without warning you are left to pick up the pieces. Faced with the challenge of forming a new role outside of your sport, find a new focus, identity, purpose. An overwhelming and even crippling thought, but we hope a sense of unity and comfort has been formed in knowing that even the most elite athletes have struggled with their mental health as a result of worlds being turned upside down this past year.
“It was a reality check. It checked whether my full identity was strictly in gymnastics,” Ginn said. “Like, I thought, ‘Hey is sports the only thing in your life? Like, are you putting your whole identity in that?”
(Carmen et al. 2021)
In the past, seeking out resources and support may have not been a common action of the student-athlete. Why is that? The mentality often encompassed by and also placed on athletes (Rapkin et al., 2020). You are trained to never let your competitor gain an inch, do not allow them to identify your weakness, do not show fear or pain, be strong and push through — cue voice over of your coach telling you to, “suck it up.” Athletes are invincible, they’re trained to be tough and persevere in spite of challenges, they’re stronger than the non-athletic person. While the athlete may be physically stronger, being an athlete does not guarantee mental strength.
“‘Why don’t you just get help?’ … because of our [athletes’] conviction that we can make ourselves unbeatable if we just work at it, our belief that there is no way we should ever need help…our fear that we will become weak if we show any vulnerability.” -Michael Phelps
(Rapkin et al., 2020, 43:26)
Survey Results Indicate Impacts COVID-19 Related Events have had on Student-Athletes Psychological Functioning
From University of North Texas Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence survey appended to the NCAA SAAC study, Spring 2020. (https://sportpsych.unt.edu/sites/default/files/covid_executive_summary.final2.july8.2020 .pdf) Adapted with permission from UNTCSP.
“Athletes experienced severe levels of sleep disturbances and reported drinking behaviors that indicated a high level of risk for substance use problems. The athletes reported particularly high levels of distress in terms of their eating behaviors and their level of dissatisfaction with different aspects of their bodies... relatively few athletes reported having no symptoms or experiencing no distress.”
(Petrie, Moore, Palmateer, & Slavin, 2020)
Coupling the athlete identity with mental strength is dangerous. Due to a fear of displaying any sort of “weakness,” athletes may be quick to dismiss their mental health concerns and find other methods to cope (See Figure 2). Training often instills mental toughness, “never give your opponent an edge, do not ever appear vulnerable.” This mentality can transfer to the team environment, which may prohibit you from opening up to or seeking help from these same people. This might perpetuate the idea that feelings of depression or anxiety need to be suppressed; you almost automatically mask your feelings and hide them from coaches and teammates. The internalized pressure to be “the ideal athlete” may blind you to the beauty that you are still human; taking of yourself and prioritizing your mental health shows strength.
“Oh you’re an athlete? So you’re invincible, right?”
Wrong. You are human.
Hear us out: maybe a silver lining offered by the pandemic is that the need for mental health resources and support is becoming understood as how critical it has always been. The onset of the pandemic has cleared the lane for conversations about mental health in athletes worldwide. Despite these reasonable concerns we feel that this “off-season,” resulting from the pandemic, is an opportunity to reset. What better time to prioritize your mental health and your personal identity outside of sport? After all, you are human above all else and in the newly released documentary, The Weight of Gold, the athlete experience is viewed in a more holistic light. The film seeks to inspire discussion about mental health issues, encourage people to seek help, and highlight the need for readily available support (Rapkin et al., 2020). Eleven Olympians speak candidly of their own mental health struggles, which are greatly exacerbated by the cancellation of sport, and use their voice to tear down previously cemented boundaries to offer a ray of hope for all [athletes].
“Dealing with the highs and the lows, the sacrifices and the challenges, and figuring out a transition from such a hyper-focused life…all of it can be incredibly hard, but there is a way forward. There are people and places that can help and there are outcomes that can be really successful, we just have to change the perception that problems with mental health are something to hide. And in a world where Olympians are leading the way forward to break down that stigma, the impact could be massive” - Michael Phelps.
(Rapkin et al., 2020, 54:46)
Michael Phelps and Gracie Gold’s narratives, along with nine other powerful accounts, may resonate on a personal level because believe it or not, you have more in common with an Olympian than you may think. The HBO original documentary may very well strike a chord with your own experience as a student-athlete during this pandemic. So when you find yourself stuck in your dorm or apartment rather than on the bus to your next competition, consider rallying the team together for a movie night featuring The Weight of Gold. And just maybe, you too will be inspired to break down that stigma and contribute to paving the way forward to a more inclusive and accepting road.
Female Student-Athlete & Track Runner [Illustration], by A. Ball, 2021.
Ball, A. (2021). Female Student-Athlete & Track Runner [Illustration]. Sports Health Institute.
Carmen, E., Graves, M., Slinde, E. James, P. (2021, January 22) Senior Season in a pandemic: How COVID-19 altered futures of ASU athletes. Cronkite News Arizona PBS. https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2021/01/22/asu-seniors-athletes-covid19-pandemic
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Mental Health and Coping during
COVID-19. US Department of Health and Human Services.
Edmond, W. (2021). [Photograph of Arizona State University women’s cross country and track runners]. Sun Devils Athletics. https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2021/01/22/asu-seniors-athletes-covid19-pandemic/
NCAA Research. (2020). Mental Health Concerns During COVID-19 Pandemic [Infographic]. NCAA. https://ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com/research/other/2020/2020RES_NCAASACOVID-19SurveyReport.pdf
The infographic (Figure 1) referenced can be found on Page 3 of the Executive Report. This report summarizes the responses from NCAA student-athletes in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, which was opened on April 10, 2020 through May 1, 2020.
Petrie, T. A., , Moore,W.G., Palmateer, T., Slavin L. (2020, July 8). Impact of COVID-19 on
College Student Athletes’ Health, Performance, and Psychological Well-Being: An Executive Summary on Baseline Data. Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence.
The infographic (Figure 2) referenced can be found on page 5 of the executive report from The University of North Texas Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence survey appended, in collaboration with Wayne State University, to the end of the NCAA’s Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) study.
Rapkin, B., & Vander Wyden, E. (Director & Producer). (2020). The Weight of Gold [Documentary]. HBO. www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-weight-of-gold