BY MATT MURSCHEL
Like millions of Americans across the country, college athletes are adapting to drastic changes due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships last week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It ended not only the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which would have been in full swing this weekend, but a slew of other spring sports such as baseball, softball, tennis and golf.
Conferences canceled all athletic events and shut down practices, ripping athletes from their competitive fields and forcing them back home into self-isolation.
Without the familiar visits to nutrition centers, athletic training rooms, weight rooms, their practice venues and team meeting rooms, athletes are facing mental health challenges many have never encountered before.
Thousands of elite performers have suddenly been left without any clarity about their future or any goals they can work toward.
“For many student-athletes, the structure around athletics is their life and that structure can be very protective,” said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer. “ … When they no longer have that structure and all of a sudden they’re home for long periods of time, sometimes the homes aren’t as nice for them as the campuses. It’s really challenging.”
With that in mind, Hainline and the NCAA issued some recommendations to help coaches and athletes manage anxiety and stress associated with the COVID-19 disruption.
The self-care suggestions include creating a dedicated work environment, establishing a daily routine, making time for regular exercise and mindfulness and finding ways for connectivity with others through virtual communication such as FaceTime.
“It would be one thing if this was like a one-week event, but this is preparing for a marathon,” Hainline said. “This could very well go on for several months, so it’s a new world.”
Added Florida athletics director Scott Stricklin, “The psychology of an athlete is always working toward something. They woke up this morning and there was nothing to work toward. That’s a hard thing to process.”
A daily routine
That’s why NCAA leaders emphasized the importance of setting up a structure and a daily routine.
“Part of the routine is that you wake up in the morning and you work out or you take a shower and brush your teeth,” Hainline said. “It’s easy at home when you wake up and suddenly, you’re just going to eat and binge-TV over the next six hours or something like that, so you can fall into unhealthy habits.”
The memo is one way the NCAA is working to keep mental health at the forefront during these trying times. The organization is also setting up webinars with athletes who are members of schools’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committees (SAAC).
Working with coaches
SAAC members help provide insight into the day-to-day experience of college athletes while providing feedback on the rules and policies instituted by the NCAA. There are committees at the campus, conference and national level.
“We’re going to rely on the national SAAC to give us feedback about some of the emerging concerns they’re hearing about,” Hainline said.
The NCAA is also working with coaches to help them guide their respective athletes during this period.
Hainline said daily video conferencing between coaches and athletes can provide a deeper level of human connectedness rather than just hearing a voice during a phone call and it can mean more if it’s at a structured time as well.
“Coaches get a sense when athletes are falling away,” Hainline said. “Very regular contact helps coaches do what they do best. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to help the athlete navigate through this while they themselves are trying to do so as well.”
Like many coaches across the country, new Boston College football coach Jeff Hafley is juggling maintaining a program while working through the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak. He, his staff and his players all are in self-isolation at their respective homes.
While daily video meetings between coaches and players are important in understanding schemes and terminology, Hafley sees a more important reason for the visual communication.
“Some of them will be conversations: ‘Does anybody need anything? How are we doing? How’s your family doing?’ I want that to be face-to-face over the computer and not on the phone because it’s hard and we have to be sensitive to the fact that these players will need other people to talk to,” he said.
Mental health coming
The NCAA is also hoping in the coming weeks to be able to connect athletes with mental health professionals through telemedicine.
Hainline said the NCAA has been networking with a group of licensed mental health providers who work in athletic departments across the country to set up an online system of contact.
This week, the Trump administration lifted national Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act restrictions that limited the use of telemedicine, and several states, including Florida, have expanded the options that allow patients and doctors to connect online.
“Now there is a much easier way to do telemedicine,” Hainline said. “We’re trying to get that network formalized. The schools are doing that as well.
“It’s challenging because the encounters now have to be virtual.”
Hainline said the NCAA will have to continue to work and adapt its stance on mental health, particularly with no clear-cut deadline in place for life to return to normal.
“We’re all in a new world and I think the three biggest risks are 1) mental health, 2) self-care and 3) is self-compassion as we try and move forward,” Hainline said.