Helping student athletes find mental wellness during the pandemic

by San Eli News

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — One of the missions of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame is focusing on the mental wellness of student athletes.

Now the Hall of Fame, CHKD, and the Hampton Roads Sports Commission teamed up to create a virtual program to help student athletes, their parents, and coaches navigate the fragility the pandemic has caused in those who are so often told to be mentally tough.

“This is probably the most challenging time student athletes will ever face. Their seasons have been canceled, their seasons have been disrupted. They don’t know if and when they start if it’s going to stop again,” says Will Driscoll, executive director of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

Driscoll says that the disruption of activity athletes love can be very hard on them mentally. Dr. Andrea Arcona, a licensed clinical psychologist with CHKD, agrees and says the pandemic has made normal coping techniques challenging.

“All the things that I tell people to do to deal with anxiety and depression, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, they couldn’t do!”

Along with Arcona, Driscoll is passionate about the topic of mental wellness in student athletes.

“There are statistics out there for everything, but as it pertains to student athletes, particularly when you look at the high school and the collegiate student athletes, the numbers in regards to stress disorders, anxiety, and depression are higher than they would be in the normal student body. That could be the stress of sports, you know, the fact that their days are longer because they have school, then they have school work, then they have practice, and then they have games, and their days are longer. So, there’s less sleep. There’s more stress. So those numbers are always higher and now you take away something that probably did bring them joy. Okay, what are we doing to fill that gap? What are we doing to make sure they are being maintained through a mental wellness standpoint?”

Driscoll says a year and half ago he recognized a need for a much larger conversation.

“Sports and mental health is something that wasn’t really being talked about that much and the one thing that has always driven me to this is the term ‘mentally tough.’ Having played sports, having been around sports my whole life, what does that mean? What does the term ‘mentally tough’ mean? And in talking with everybody, it means something different to every person.”

Arcona says as parents and coaches, we need to do more than tell our kids to be mentally tough.

“As parents, we have a really hard time often seeing our kids be sad and we want to just get them through it, we want to help them focus on the positive. We want to help them, you know, dig deep and push through and be mentally tough like [Will] said. But, part of the journey has to start with saying, ‘You know what? This really does stink. This really is awful. It is important that you lost your whole season last year. It is hard that you don’t know what’s coming up. I get it.’”

After you validate your child’s feelings, Arcona says it’s important to then help them focus on the positive and coping strategies.

“First is, access your social support network. Make connections to people that help you keep yourself fit mentally and physically. Make a schedule of how to workout. If you can’t do that, which a lot of kids can’t, reach out to your high school coaches. Reach out to your middle school coaches. Reach out to your parents’ friends. Anyone who can help you come up with some sort of structure because a schedule is really important.”

Change things up for your kids if you can.

“I certainly heard lots of kids say over the last seven months that every day feels the same. It feels like I just did this yesterday. There’s nothing to look forward to,” says Arcona.

So, give them something to look forward to.

“So if it’s a practice, that counts. If it’s not, if it’s nothing that you have planned where you can get out with your friends — then make something. Decide that you’re going to have Taco Tuesday at home. Decide that you’re going to go for dessert even if it’s just in the car, even if it’s just with your family, but you’re going to get out of the house,” she continued.

“Decide that you’re going to go for a bike ride with one of your friends. Decide that you’re going to go for a run. Decide that you’re going to go play tennis. Those lifelong sports that are less limited and less require a workout plan or practice drills, those kinds of things are very important so that kids see the differentiation, distinction, things to look forward to and see that there’s some sort of normalcy coming back.”

There are many signs you can look for to find out if your student athlete is struggling mentally during this time of coronavirus.

“So many of the symptoms of anxiety and depression, for example, mental illness, are fostered by COVID. They’re put in place by COVID. One of the symptoms for example is withdrawing from your social network. Well, our social access has been limited so we really want to foster that as much as we can, but be looking for kids who are not able to reach out, who are not reaching out as much and to reach out for them. I think that’s a really important thing that kids can do for their peers,” says Arcona.

“We want to be sure to not put responsibility for other kids’ mental health on adolescents, but it’s certainly appropriate to encourage them to reach out and pull people in who are struggling. Other symptoms are things like not being able to enjoy things that you used to enjoy. Sleeping more, gaining weight, losing weight, all of those are affected by not having regular activity and regular, planned out exercise,” she explained.

You will hear more advice and information from Arcona as she joins a panel for the upcoming virtual event, “A Pandemic Playbook: Mental Wellness for Student Athletes.” Joining Arcona on the panel is:

Dr. Joel Brenner – Dr. Brenner is the medical director of CHKD’s sports medicine program and the director of CHKD’s sports concussion, dance medicine, and running programs.

Dr. Rachel Turk – Dr. Turk is in her first year as the Richmond Spiders athletic department’s first-ever Staff Psychologist, working with the Spider student-athletes on a regular basis.

Chris Scott – Head Football Coach at Oscar Smith High School.

Elliott France – Senior at Cox High School (Virginia Beach) and member of the soccer team.

“You have to come into a discussion like this with an open mind because you might say to yourself, ‘I don’t have any mental health or mental wellness issues.’ But just because you don’t, doesn’t mean somebody in your inner circle doesn’t,” says Driscoll.

“A Pandemic Playbook: Mental Wellness for Student Athletes” is Tuesday, October 27 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. via Zoom. The program will also be streamed live on several of the organizations’ Facebook pages, but if you would like to ask questions, you do have to register for the program.

“It’s okay to talk about this issue. The stigma is breaking down. It’s okay to be concerned. It’s okay to have questions. But, it’s one thing to be okay to have questions and be concerned, it’s another to voice those concerns and ask those questions. Let’s work on this together and hopefully get through this on the other side better than when we started,” says Driscoll.

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