The season is on…the season is shortened…the season is off. Games are cancelled. Practice is on, but make sure you’re wearing a mask! Oh, and no one except mom and dad can watch in the stands.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty into the lives of young athletes, and they have been greatly affected by changes to organized sports.
Dr. Allyson Weldon, a psychologist in Akron Children’s Hospital’s Sports Medicine Center, is seeing the stress these changes are putting on young athletes every day. For those who have had to endure the cancellation of a season, it can be devastating.
“It’s very similar to when they have a major injury,” she said. “To them, it’s a loss of identity in many ways. They struggle with losing control over certain situations.”
Participating in organized sports is a healthy activity for adolescents and teens, Dr. Weldon said. Benefits include learning the value of teamwork, gaining leadership skills, and experiencing positive relationships with adults outside of the family. Playing a sport – which entails hours of practices as well as competing – can also help a student become better at time management as they balance the demands of school with those of their team.
Those are all great reasons for sports to proceed, she added, even as there are concerns with students being in school during the pandemic.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association is allowing sports to move forward, but there are changes, such as a six-game schedule for high school football. Some districts have opted to halt all athletics because of the risks, while others have allowed play to proceed with precautions and restricted spectators.
Dr. Weldon said this year’s challenges are especially being felt by students who hope to compete in college and beyond. Those who were hoping to be scouted are wondering how that can happen if they have fewer games or aren’t able to play. Seniors who aren’t planning on going any further in their sports career are also dealing with the profound disappointment that this year is not going to be what they imagined.
Even if a season is proceeding, the pandemic precautions that are being taken at practice and games could cause more stress for an already anxious teen or one who is afraid of getting sick.
“They might be wondering, how do we keep ourselves safe when we are in a contact sport with ball sharing or tackling?” she said.
So, what’s a parent or coach to do? Dr. Weldon shares 6 things to keep in mind.
It’s OK for a student athlete to be angry or sad
If your child is feeling negative emotions about what’s happened to their season, let them experience those feelings. Encouraging them communicate these feelings with a trusted adult is a good way to help them work through their disappointment.
Emphasize the positives
Maybe practices are shorter or their friends can’t be at the game to watch in person. These are disappointing – but affirm that the opportunity to play right now in light of how life has changed for so many is something to appreciate.
Look to other sports options
Student athletes whose seasons have been canceled can play on a club or travel team, Dr. Weldon said. While it won’t be the same experience, it could open doors to new friendships and experiences.
Allow COVID-safe team get-togethers and activities
Dr. Weldon suggests coaches coordinate team bonding events to keep up the morale of their team and keep them engaged with each other. If all gatherings have to be halted, virtual group workouts can help keep the team in touch.
“Connection is the key to helping keep kids engaged,” she said.
Teens may be more accepting of the reality of what’s happening when they realize their peers are also facing the same heartbreak.
“It’s OK to recognize that your sport is canceled, but band, theater, everyone who has other extracurriculars are very impacted by this as well,” she said.
Keep young athletes busy with exercise and other activities
That may include trying other physical activities or getting more involved with a hobby.
“Encourage anything that keeps them physically active if they can. Go outside and play catch or do whatever they would do as a normal workout in the offseason,” she said.
Seek mental health help
In some cases, the support of mental health professional may be needed. Dr. Weldon said sometimes kids who are depressed or anxious internalize those emotions. This can present in many ways, so parents should look for signs of increased irritability and defiance as well as withdrawal or self-isolation. Parents might notice their teen trying to take control of other parts of life by making extreme changes to their eating or sleeping habits.
Dr. Weldon, herself a former collegiate soccer player, sees patients who are seeking help managing their return to sports after an injury. She also works on the mental component of athletics with athletes who have plans to pursue a collegiate or professional career. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 330-543-8260.