Student-athletes and mental health: 5 lessons learned from COVID

One of the greatest strengths of a student-athlete is their adaptability
Shawn Harris, Westcliff University
Shawn Harris, Westcliff University

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly been far-reaching across the field of higher education, and these impacts are particularly evident where student-athlete populations are concerned.

In the early stages of the 2020-2021 academic year, public health restrictions and social distancing protocols drastically limited the student-athlete experience. When it came to the duration or frequency of scheduled team practices and restrictions on how many teammates can interact together at any one time, this past year has certainly been different than a typical athletic season.

Repetition and routine are critical for the success of student-athletes as well as their teams, and this marked change in the availability of resources proved to be a major obstacle for universities across the world to overcome. Aside from logistical and physical limitations, the pandemic also introduced a new series of challenges related to the mental health of student-athletes—with anxiety and depression ranking among the top concerns of both school leadership and coaching staff.

For student-athletes navigating recent prolonged periods of great uncertainty, a number of contributing factors precipitated the anxiety brought forth by COVID-19. Across the board, student-athletes have experienced isolation, loneliness, change in schedules, shifts from in-person to online class instruction and concern around ensuring adequate resources for academic, financial, transportation and logistical needs.

As a direct result of the pandemic, Westcliff University has learned five essential lessons regarding student-athletes, their mental health and how universities can effectively address these concerns:

1. Consistency is key

Especially when in-person interactions are limited, or even impossible, the ability to have regularly scheduled team events is essential. Weekly team meetings, student athletics advisory council meetings, weight room training sessions or even study hall helped to create consistent opportunities for student-athletes to both see and interact with their teammates and coaches on a reliable basis.

These planned sessions enabled students to engage with their peers and coaches, vent their frustrations, realize that this experience was collectively difficult for everyone, and retain some semblance of a normal athletics environment. Having these hours scheduled in advance gave many student-athletes something to look forward to during quarantine.

Regardless of the pandemic phase or degree of health restrictions in place, providing student-athletes as much routine as possible is a great way to improve and sustain student body morale.

2. Individual follow-ups and metrics matter

Responses to the pandemic are varied from individual to individual, and this is no different with student-athletes. School administrators and coaching staff should take advantage of available data and metrics to determine which student-athletes may be struggling.

Looking at information such as attendance in study hall, practice or team meetings, as well as low grades, can allow staff to identify which students may be actively participating less or in need of additional assistance.

Through the diligent observance of these metrics, staff can individually reach out to student-athletes, meeting them where they are, in order to see how they are doing, if everything is alright in their personal lives, or if they require anything they may be currently lacking.

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These personalized interactions show the student-athletes that they are not alone, that they’re part of an athletics family, and have an available support system to reach out to if anything becomes overwhelming or unsafe. This practice is absolutely something that was in place prior to COVID-19, but the demonstrated results of meaningful check-ins show that follow-up is now perhaps more relevant than ever before.

3. Virtual events are effective

Despite anxiety or mental distress stemming from the pandemic, virtual events—such as Kahoot activities, media days or virtual giveaways—have proven to be both successful and popular among student-athletes. These events work to provide a continued reminder that student-athletes are still a part of their university and athletics family.

Using these platforms to engage with student-athletes in a fun way can assist in showing that athletics staff is actively working to create some sense of normalcy in these atypical times. Through virtual competition, sharing essential information like new COVID-related policies, promoting team bonding or checking in on students can be done in a new and safe way.

Athletics departments may consider such virtual events as a way to have various sports teams or individual members of a team compete against one another to encourage school spirit even in a remote environment.

4. Highlight student successes

Showcasing student-athlete success stories, even without traditional competition, is an important staple to keep in place in these uncertain times. Although most sports seasons and scheduled games were outright suspended in the wake of the pandemic, highlighting student-athletes including their successes and their personalities provides sports teams with additional ways to interact with one another and the university as a whole.

Using websites, email or other publications, athletics staff can promote student-athletes via profiles, interview series’ or showcases on what students have done to remain positive during the last year. Similarly, social media takeovers are an effective means of showing what the life of a current student-athlete may look like.

Highlighting the good—even amid the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic—is instrumental in providing student-athletes with both an outlet and a sense of community in this “new normal.”

5. Provide flexibility and options

Throughout the last year where university staff has asked student-athletes to remain flexible in their academic and athletic pursuits, this same level of adaptability must be reciprocated when it comes to providing students with the options they need to succeed.

With the ever-increasing stressors of the pandemic, students may have experienced a great lack of clarity around whether they wanted to forego a year of eligibility as part of a team whose season could be canceled at the university, conference or national association level. Understandably, these decisions are of the utmost importance, and no student-athlete wanted to rush into a decision on transferring or removing themselves from their team.

In this light, committing to an athletics season during the pandemic quickly became a conversation requiring great consideration for student-athletes and their families. Universities that offered flexible options—such as an “opt out” option for students to withdraw from team activities if they felt unsafe participating during the pandemic without the consequences of losing a scholarship or their spot on the team—were extremely effective.

In alleviating one of the numerous stressors in the day-to-day lives of student-athletes, universities can promote the overall mental health of their student body.

These lessons are easily applicable for any university looking to tackle the challenge of mental health in student-athlete populations head-on. By and large, student-athletes are connected in automatic relationships that are defined by their role on a team. Through this family-like dynamic, student-athletes are able to rely on one another, learn from each other and work together to achieve a common goal.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that one of the greatest strengths of a student-athlete is their adaptability. These individuals thrive on being able to adjust their game plan when “in-game” situations demand it, practicing how to react, prioritize and succeed when their first plan may not work.

While this past year has been far from ideal for athletics departments around the world, universities that provide their student-athletes with the support, community and resources they need to remain healthy and successful are the ones who will not only rise to this unique challenge but hurdle over it in the immediate future.

Shawn Harris is the dean of athletics for the 23 teams at Westcliff University in California.  

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