Life can quickly become stressful when we feel as though we are losing control of normal patterns and routines, and this is as true for kids as it is for adults. Student athletes experience their own unique stress even in “normal” times, including performance pressure, minimum academic eligibility requirements, and managing sport injuries, but the current pandemic has added additional stressors that often exacerbate as the pandemic endures. Because the pandemic is impacting all of us in this moment, it’s easy for parents and coaches to lose sight of some of the current struggles student athletes are dealing with as they hope to have a winter sports season.
Uncertainty and stress response
Generally speaking, we as humans like to know what is going on around us, and to have a degree of control over our thinking, circumstances, and behaviors. We are creatures of habit, and enjoy predictable routines that allow us to prepare in ways that provide for the greatest chance of future success. Currently, however, the world feels like it is upside down — and this is especially true for student athletes.
In addition to the normal questions and uncertainty that we are all experiencing relating to the pandemic (i.e. when will I be able to receive the vaccine?), student athletes have expressed to me a number of questions unique to them, including the following:
- What measures do I need to take in order to continue to practice/compete in the safest ways possible?
- Will there be a winter sport season?
- What happens if I lose some/all of my eligibility?
- Will college coaches still recruit me, especially if I have only a partial season — or no season at all?
- Will I play enough this year to be physically and emotionally ready for future college competition?
- Are my studies currently being compromised, and if so, how will I be adequately prepared for college academics and remaining eligible (assuming there is an opportunity to play college sports)?
While some of the questions above will soon be answered (i.e. whether there will be winter sports), many others will not. For student athletes trying to get noticed in order to play at the next level, the stress is very real when it comes to attracting the attention of college coaches during these unusual times, as well as getting in enough competition so that they will have both the confidence and physical skills needed to succeed at the next level.
These stressors exist, even if you are not hearing about it
It is important to note that most student athletes are experiencing the challenges outlined above, even if you are not hearing about these concerns directly. Some student athletes do not want to come across perceived as “weak” by publicly displaying their uncertainty and anxiety, while others have realized the power of working things on their own and don’t feel the need to express their worries to others. The point is you can be confident that these are challenging times for student athletes right now, even if they don’t come to you about their stress.
If you are a parent and/or coach, there are things you can do to help student athletes effectively manage their emotions while we work toward more normal times, including:
- Create an open dialogue where kids can reach out and ask questions as often as they need.
- Assist kids with resources at school, including mental health counseling support.
- Allow for moments where kids need to gather their thoughts, especially if you witness random emotional breakdowns stemming from the duration of the pandemic.
- Re-assure kids with facts, including the reality that we are all in this together and that the competition is not getting ahead.
- Ask questions, especially if you think you see a kid struggling.
- Get kids the help they need, regardless of how it might look to others. No kid is so tough that he or she should be left to sort through all of the current chaos, especially when caring parents, coaches, and other helping professionals are here to lend assistance.
These are tough times, and for many student athletes they are filled with questions and uncertainties as their sports careers hang in the balance. Often kids dealing with a lot of pandemic-related stress won’t talk about it, or let their guard down so that their stress is visible, making it that much more important that adults pay close attention to things that feel “off.” Error on the side of caution by exploring potential problems, then taking action steps to acquire the help needed to resolve the problem(s).