Student athletes are used to having routines and game schedules. But that regimen was taken away as of March 2020, as lockdowns and restrictions were put in place throughout the country to combat COVID-19.
Some college athletes and experts shared with ABC News the toll they said the pandemic has taken on student athletes’ mental well-being as well as their progress in their sport.
“The pandemic was awful for me in the sense that I felt like I lost everything in an instant,” Baylee Tkaczuk, a gymnast who attended the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh from 2016 to 2020, told ABC News.
Tkaczuk, who graduated in May 2020, spoke about disappointments amid COVID.
“One day my team and I were conference champs for the first time in 24 years and we were ready to go to nationals,” she said. “The next day we learned we wouldn’t be going. It was awful for the seniors last year because it was so abrupt and we never got to compete in our last competitions.”
“For many student-athletes, their sport is a big part of their identity, their community on campus and their daily routine,” Dr. Sarah Lipson, an assistant professor in the department of health law policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health told ABC News.
While athletes fear getting COVID-19 just like everyone else, there’s the added sense of loss from restrictions put on their practice sessions and competitions which can affect their progression in their sport, said Dr. Shekhar Saxena, professor of the practice of global mental health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The time window that athletes have in their career to do their best is very narrow and for some, one year lost could be a career lost. For others, the time lost breaks their routine and the chance to win a medal or to set a record — that can result in anxiety and depression,” Saxena told ABC News.
A junior when the pandemic hit, Noa Covell, now a senior on the women’s rowing team at Ithaca College, had a hard time processing that school and sports were becoming remote activities.
“Our whole team was told that we had to go home right after returning back to campus from our spring training trip in Georgia,” Covell said. “Working out alone for the first couple of months made me feel extremely isolated and unmotivated.”
Covell said she knew many of her teammates felt the same, so she found a way to keep her team connected even though they were all miles apart.
“We decided to try to make a schedule to do workouts over Zoom together. Having Zoom open during the workout and seeing the faces of my teammates made a huge difference,” Covell said.
Even athletes participating in socially distanced games and practices feel the effects of the pandemic.
Clair Kaji is a fifth-year senior on the women’s gymnastics team at the University of Iowa.
Kaji said not being able to see loved ones during the pandemic has been the most challenging.
“During season we haven’t been able to see our parents. These are sacrifices we’re willing to make to keep the team safe but it hasn’t been easy,” she told ABC News.
As with other teams, her team’s season has been different this year. Her team only travels by bus to meets and no fans are allowed to come root them on.
“We make it a priority to talk to our players and have them know that mental health is just as important as physical health,” Pedersen said.
As head of marketing for the team, Pederson helped start motivational and mindful Mondays for the players during the pandemic.
“It is expected that 10%of all short-term mental health problems will lead to long-term functional limitation,” Saxena said about the pandemic’s potential impact on student athletes.
Proactive steps to help student athletes navigate the pandemic may help ward off longer-term damage.
“It will be important to continue to understand the mental health of student athletes in both the short- and long-term and to promote help-seeking for mental health as needed,” Lipson told ABC News.