Season cancelations bring mental health concerns for student-athletes

Leer en español: Cancelación de temporadas deportivas aumenta problemas de salud mental para estudiantes-atletas

BYU’s student-athletes have experienced a little bit of everything over the past several months.

In March, the remainder of all winter and spring seasons for BYU’s extramural, club and NCAA-sanctioned sports were canceled as universities across the country began to accept the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cougar student-athletes were then encouraged to return home for the summer, where they continued to grapple with an increasing sense of uncertainty.

Then, on Aug. 12, the West Coast Conference announced it was postponing all conference fall competition indefinitely, impacting all of BYU’s fall NCAA-sanctioned sports apart from football.

As the athletes continue to navigate through unexpected change and uncertainty, the mental health of BYU’s student-athletes is becoming more of a concern for those who work with them.

“A lot of the predictable and controllable factors that we used to enjoy are no longer there,” said Natalie Kirtley, a psychologist who works with the BYU Athletic Department. “When we have to deal with the unknown, it’s not very comfortable for people. These student-athletes currently have a lot of unknowns related to their respective sports, which increases anxiety.”

“Anxiety and depression are sort of best friends,” Kirtley added. “So, athletes can start to feel depressed as well. When something happens that’s so far outside of our comfort zone, people experience varying degrees of trauma response.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will keep the majority of BYU’s sports teams from holding a season this fall. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

According to an NCAA survey published earlier this summer, over half of the more than 37,000 athletes who responded reported experiencing high rates of mental distress since the start of the pandemic. Over a third reported having difficulty sleeping, more than a quarter reported feeling sadness and a sense of loss while one in 12 were having difficulty functioning because of depression.

Overall, the rate of mental health concerns experienced by the NCAA student-athletes was 150% to 250% higher than have been historically reported, according to the survey. College seniors were especially impacted, having reported a “constant” or “nearly daily” sense of loss at 1.5 times the rate of underclassmen.

Student-athletes’ sense of identity is another mental health concern that has been influenced since the onset of the pandemic, according to Kirtley. Seniors, many of whom have had to decide whether or not to return after being granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, have been especially impacted by the recent onslaught of changes. The recent season cancelations have caused many athletes to reassess their lives and figure out what type of goals they want to work towards next.

“When you take away seasons and sport participation, the athletes’ sense of identity changes dramatically,” Kirtley said. “A huge part of their identity comes from being an athlete. So, that can put them in a place where they’re thinking about what exactly they want to accomplish next, what their next step in life is going to be.”

The BYU Football team will most likely be the only Cougar squad to undergo a season this fall. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

According to Kirtley, who works frequently with retiring athletes, the current circumstances can give BYU student-athletes an opportunity to adapt while still maintaining a strong sense of identity.

“At retirement, their identity is something they have to navigate anyway,” Kirtley said. “Like I tell the athletes, ‘Once an athlete, always an athlete.’ It’s not that that part of your identity ever stops existing. But, sometimes you might have to transition within that identity. A lot of the time it’s about asking yourself, ‘How does this identity manifest itself in my current environment?'”

When it comes to coping with the recent changes and uncertainty, resiliency is key, according to Kirtley. Many athletes have learned the importance of resiliency through countless experiences of overcoming adversity from a young age. Injuries, subpar performances and losses are all situations college athletes have dealt with throughout their lives.

Kirtley also pointed out that athletes frequently find themselves in high-pressure situations with only two possible outcomes: winning or losing. Athletes are also constantly being evaluated on times and numbers, requiring them to become resilient and goal-oriented, according to Kirtley.

“I think the student-athletes do feel like they have some resiliency,” Kirtley said. “Even when they might not, sometimes the most resilient thing you can do is say, ‘I think I need some help with this.’ Thankfully, our athletic department and the university have provided some great resources for people to get that help and learn how to increase their resiliency.”

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