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A Pandemic Playbook: Mental Wellness for Student Athletes

By Dr. Andrea Arcona, CHKD licensed clinical psychologist

Canceled games. Disrupted training. And seasons of uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed many young athletes of their spring and summer seasons and (at a minimum) delayed school seasons for the current academic year. As student athletes wrestle with so much recent disappointment and future uncertainty, maintaining their mental wellness is critical.

I was one on a panel of experts at a virtual forum called A Pandemic Playbook: Mental Wellness for Student Athletes on October 27. See a recorded version of the forum here.

I will be joined by Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of CHKD’s sports medicine program, and Dr. Rachel Turk, staff psychologist of University of Richmond’s athletic department. Chris Scott, head football coach at Oscar Smith High School will also be on the panel of speakers, along with a local student athlete. We will discuss the feelings student athletes are struggling with as seasons get canceled or adjusted, and what families, coaches, and athletes can do to maintain physical and mental health.

Studies are already showing that student athletes are suffering. A recent study by a team of physicians, child health experts, and researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that about 68 percent of more than 3,000 student athletes surveyed reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require intervention, up 37 percent from past research studies.

The study also reported that physical activity levels were 50 percent lower than they were for kids prior to the pandemic. Quality-of-life scores were lower than researchers had ever found in similar studies of adolescents.

This situation is unprecedented. And it is important that we all work to help our student athletes process the grief, find positive coping strategies, and maybe even come out stronger on the other side.

For student athletes:

  • Allow yourself space to grieve and vent from time to time. Just don’t allow yourself to get stuck there.
  • Find positive ways to cope with the grief and move forward.
  • If your team is not currently practicing, connect with teammates to safely get together, work out together, and play pick-up games.
  • Reach out to coaches for workout plans and drills to keep your strength and skills up.
  • Engage in alternative fitness activities – especially lifelong sports like biking, walking, swimming, Spikeball, beach volleyball, and yoga.
  • Seek out virtual training opportunities if in-person training is limited or unavailable.
  • Pace yourself. If you have not trained regularly for a while, ease back in and build up carefully to prevent injuries.

For parents and coaches:

  • Check in and ask how they are feeling.
  • Validate feelings and try not to minimize. A loss of a school season and/or a club season IS a valid, significant loss to a student athlete – especially considering loss of the social, emotional, and physical benefits, as well as recruiting opportunities.
  • After validating, help them to accept the loss and move forward by helping them to build in opportunities for what they may be missing.
  • Provide support for the coping strategies listed above for students. These include building opportunities for structure, fitness, social connection, and team bonding.
  • Consider virtual and video-based recruiting opportunities for those interested.

Red flags that call for connection with a school counselor, pediatrician, or mental health expert:

  • No longer interacting with friends and family.
  • Sleeping more or less than usual.
  • Gaining or losing weight.
  • Losing interest in things that used to enthuse them.
  • Out-of-character emotions and mood swings.
  • Expressing dark feelings on social media.

Thanks to Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, Hampton Roads Sports Commission, and CHKD for partnering together to host this important forum. Thanks also to Claudell Clark, executive director of Hampton Roads Sport Commission, for moderating this event.

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About Andrea Arcona, PhD

About Andrea  Arcona, PhD Andrea Arcona, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist at CHKD who sees patients at Partners in Pediatric Care in Virginia Beach. She is interested in the evaluation and treatment of a broad range of social-emotional, behavioral, attention, learning, and developmental disorders, particularly in preschool and elementary-age children.