COVID-19, High School Athletes, and Mental Health

The coronavirus pandemic touches almost every facet of life for people in the U.S. The way we work, the way we play, the way we socialize – it’s nearly impossible to find an area of day-to-day living that coronavirus does not affect. At the start of the pandemic, most of us thought we were at the beginning of a temporary, passing phase. We’d shelter-in-place, social distance, wear masks, and stick with our quarantine crew until the danger passed.

Then life would return to normal.

That’s what we expected. But that’s not what happened.

Here we are in July, well past the midpoint of summer, and things are still unclear. For parents and teens, the primary concern – aside from the health and welfare of their families, friends, and loved ones – is school. In most states, students typically return from summer break in early- to mid-August, which is right around the corner. Parents and students want to know if and when school will start, what it will look like, and how that will affect their lives.

Unfortunately, however, the picture regarding school is still unclear.

School will start next month – that much is certain. But the way the return happens will vary state-to-state and district-to-district.

Some districts plan in-person school with few restrictions. Some plan in-person school with stringent mask and social distancing policies. Others plan a hybrid model, with students attending brick and mortar school part-time and participating in online learning part-time. Still others will begin the year completely online, with plans to re-evaluate the situation – based on the latest local data – on a month-to-month basis.

Most of the planning revolves around the academic and social development of our teens. That’s appropriate: teens need to stay on a forward trajectory and meet their academic, emotional, and psychological milestones.

But what’s going to happen with high school sports?

COVID-19 and Student Athletes

The short answer is that no one really knows what will happen with high school sports this year. States and local districts have plans. In some areas, summer football workouts are already underway – although several schools have cancelled practices due to coaches or athletes testing positive for coronavirus. To read a comprehensive and up-to-date (as of July 21st) list of the status of high school sports in all fifty states, read this article published by CBS sports: Where the Start of High School Sports Stands in All 50 States Amid the Pandemic.

We’re almost off topic, here: this article is supposed to be about the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of high school athletes. It’s necessary to contextualize this specific topic, however, because one thing we’re all learning about coronavirus as we go along is that everything about the pandemic is related. And one lesson we’ve learned for certain is that we can plan all we like, but in reality, the coronavirus can upend our best laid plans and send us back to the drawing board, scratching our heads.

Inside all of this uncertainty, it’s helpful when we get concrete information to guide our decision and expand our knowledge. Thankfully, a study performed in Canada about the effect of the pandemic on high school athletes does just that: it gives us an idea of how the lockdown affects the mental health of student athletes. Here’s how the study author describes the survey:

“In this new study, we aimed to assess the impact o the COVID-19 on Canadian high-performance student athletes in grades 9-12. Specifically, we assessed concerns regarding the current competition season, possible psychological impacts due to COVID-19, and individual actions that have been taken in response to the pandemic.”

Ready for the data?

Here we go.

COVID-19 and Mental Health: High School Athletes

In late April, about six weeks after lockdown began in Ontario, Canada, a rising senior at John McCrae Secondary School – in collaboration with researchers from The Sport Journal – collected 115 online surveys from student athletes.

Here’s the basic demographic information on the study respondents:

  • Median age: 16.5 years
  • Gender:
    • 57.4% female
    • 42.6% male
  • Team or individual:
    • 83.5% team
    • 16.5% individual
  • Competitive level:
    • Regional (local): 13.1%
    • Provincial (state): 47.8%
    • National: 27.8%
    • International: 11.3%
  • Years in sport:
    • Less than 3 years: 4.3%
    • 3-5 years: 12.2%
    • 5-8 years: 31.3%
    • More than 8 years: 52.2%
  • Hours per week, pre-lockdown:
    • Less than 15: 21.7%
    • 15-20: 47.0%
    • 20-25: 21.7%
    • More than 25: 9.6%

We include this level of detail to give you an idea of exactly who we’re talking about. To summarize, about half of these students have played their sport for over eight years and spend 15-20 hours a week in practice. That’s a lot – and it’s important because sports, for these students, is clearly a big part of their lives.

Next, we’ll look at the effect of coronavirus lockdown on competition and training:

  • Event cancellation:
    • Yes: 93%
    • No: 2.6%
    • Maybe: 4.3%
  • Participating in virtual training:
    • Yes: 60.0%
    • No: 40.0%
  • Current training:
    • None: 15.7%
    • Less than 5 hours: 21.7%
    • 5-8 hours: 40.0%
    • 8-12 hours: 18.3%
    • 12 + hours: 4.3%

Now we’ll look at the effect of coronavirus lockdown on their mental health and wellbeing:

  • Feeling isolated or disconnected:
    • Yes: 52.2%
    • No: 38.3%
    • Sometimes: 8.7%
  • Experience anxiety, frustration, or depression:
    • Yes: 31.3%
    • Sometimes: 47.8%
    • No: 14.8%
    • Maybe/prefer not to say: 6.0%
  • Lack of initiative/apathy:
    • Yes: 60.9%
    • Sometimes: 28.7%
    • No: 9.6%
  • Thinks the situation is tough to deal with:
    • Yes: 75.7%
    • No: 5.2%
    • Maybe: 19.1%
  • Not looking forward to anything:
    • N/A: 13.0%
    • Sometimes: 51.3%
    • Often: 24.3%
    • Most of the time: 11.3%

Parents reading this data can see teenagers all over it: half of them say sometimes they’re not looking forward to anything in their lives. That’s roughly equivalent to a shrug and a “Maybe” when they ask their teens if they’re hungry for dinner. However, that’s life with a teenager. There are some important things to tease out of this data, though – we’ll do that now.

Interpreting the Numbers

One thing about this study we want to point out is that it was conducted by a teen. Adult scientists helped, but it’s important to understand that a teenager identified a potential problem, found a way to study the problem, and confirmed what they suspected: coronavirus lockdown had an adverse effect on the mental health of student athletes.

The data show that teens in this study, for the most part, understand and recognize they’re in the middle of a difficult situation. That’s good and bad: the circumstances are bad, but it’s good they’re aware it’s bad – identifying a problem means they can work to fix it. Also, for the most part, the absence of sports makes them feel isolated and disconnected, creates a lack of initiative/sense of apathy, and causes them to experience feelings of anxiety, frustration, and depression.

We call those red flags.

Or, more simply, warning signs of what our teen athletes may experience as they navigate the coronavirus pandemic through the end of summer, fall, and winter.

What Parents Can Do

Let’s zoom out and think about the big picture. If we see this level of impact in a study on a hundred students just six weeks into lockdown, we speculate the effect on competitive high school athletes six months into the pandemic might be far more significant.

As adults, we arrange our teenager’s lives to maximize what’s best for them and minimize things that may cause harm. We understand the role sports play in their lives. Sports keep them busy. Sports keep them focused. Team sports teach them to work for the good of the whole rather than the good of the individual. Team sports – and this varies, of course – also keep students in good academic standing, since most high school teams require a minimum GPA for participation. Coaches also administer consequences for disciplinary issues at school: star players do, in fact, get benched for skipping class – and coaches probably make them run extra laps or do an extra set of pushups to get their point across.

We’re actively concerned about all those things. There’s something else on our mind, though, that’s directly related to emotional health and wellbeing. Something parents can take control of. It’s so basic we almost forget about it: student athletes enjoy the psychological, physical, and emotional benefits of regular exercise. The same benefits doctors and therapists say are of vital importance to overall wellness for everyone. Think about that. Among other things, athletics are built-in stress management and emotional regulation techniques most of these kids have practiced – without really knowing that’s one part of what they’re doing – for most of their lives.

In the absence of organized sports, how will they cope?

Keep Them Active

That’s where parents come in. If your teen is a serious high school athlete, one thing you can do to make sure they stay healthy – emotionally as well as physically – is to make sure they keep exercising. This goes for kids who aren’t serious athletes, as well. If sports practice was a regular part of their routine and helped them thrive before coronavirus, then it’s crucial to find a way to replace or reconfigure that exercise/activity routine during coronavirus.

This is especially true if you notice any drastic changes in mood or behavior: it could be because they’re not getting the exercise their body and brain is accustomed to. Your teen may or may not realize that’s why they feel moody, angry, or agitated – but if you can see it and you can connect the dots, then you, as a parent, can do something about it.

It may take some creativity. It may mean you need to learn more about training. You may need to play the role of coach more than you used to. That’s okay. If it’s temporary, it will probably be a lot of fun. You’ll both learn from the process. There’s a hidden bonus, too: you’ll have one more way to connect with your teenager.