Many student athletes around the country are feeling lost during this COVID-19 pandemic. Spring seasons were cut short or canceled entirely and the status of Fall sports is up in the air. Since many athletes consider playing sports the most rewarding part of their day, and an important part of their identity, this hiatus can cause stress and anxiety.
And for high school athletes looking to get recruited by college sports programs, the disruption can leave them nervous about the future of their athletic careers.
The benefits of playing sports are numerous. In addition to the physical health improvements, sports can have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, memory, sleep and mood, says Michael Swartzon, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. For young people, playing sports can build self-confidence and being part of a team can help them feel connected to peers. So, how can parents, coaches and trainers help kids who rely on sports for these important benefits navigate through this period of uncertainty? In support of Mental Health Month in May, here are a few tips:
Implement a Healthy Routine
Establishing a well-rounded routine related to exercise, nutrition and sleep can help young athletes feel more in control and alleviate some of the emotional strain they are feeling. It can also help them stay fit and healthy so they are ready to return to formalized training, practice and competition. Many competitors can find inspiration in the routines they had before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Get Creative With Training
Since most athletes do not have access to the exercise equipment they would normally use at team practices, creativity is key, says Dr. Swartzon. “The professional athletes I’ve talked to have gone back to their roots, working out at home and converting their garages into workout areas,” he said.
High school and college athletes can also set up a designated training area at home. They can practice sport-specific skills and access exercise apps and livestream classes that focus on strength, flexibility, coordination and mental skills. “This is a good time for athletes to be open to new techniques and have a bit of fun with their workouts,” Dr. Swartzon added.
Avoid Overuse Injuries
Young athletes working out alone will often follow the same routine when they do not have a trainer guiding them, cautions Dr. Swartzon. “This can lead to overuse injuries, which are caused by repetitive trauma without cross-training or rest,” he said. “It’s important for athletes to listen to their bodies and vary their exercise routines.”
Set Goals and Track Progress
When players set goals for themselves, track their development and celebrate their accomplishments, they will stay motivated and enjoy their workouts more, say experts. Coaches, trainers and parents should also play an active role in recognizing young athletes as they hit milestones during their at-home training sessions.
Stay Connected With Coaches and Teammates
As schools have shifted to virtual classes, many sports teams have changed to online team meetings. “The athletic trainers at St. Thomas University have adopted a virtual rehab approach and their athletes are using items in their homes during training sessions,” Dr. Swartzon explained. Many coaches and athletes are using Facetime, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts to share training tips, support each other and strengthen their team bond.
Adapt to Recruiting Challenges
“It is sad that some winter and spring sport seniors did not get another opportunity to play prior to graduation,” Dr. Swartzon said. While most of these athletes have already signed with a collegiate team if they are playing at the next level, high school juniors on this same path are worried about the cancellation of their season and the effect on their athletic careers. However, they should keep in mind that college scouts will be adjusting their recruiting methods since they cannot currently travel to see players in person. Experts encourage young athletes to create training highlight footage, finesse their social media presence, reach out to prospective schools and encourage their coaches to reach out on their behalf.
Instead of focusing on what they are missing or cannot do, student athletes—and everyone—should focus on what they can do. Maintaining good health and staying active and engaged will help young athletes remain positive and feel more in control.