CHEER On: Surviving Sports and COVID-19 Fatigue

Is your teen athlete showing signs of pandemic fatigue?

Posted Jan 18, 2021

 KeithJJ/Pixabay
Source: KeithJJ/Pixabay

"You want to touch the other shore badly enough, barring an impossible situation, you will." —Diana Nyad

It’s hard not to be inspired by Diana Nyad, the 63-year-old endurance swimmer who was the first human to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. She braved failure, deadly box jellyfish, strong and unpredictable currents, and deadly predators. The COVID-19 global pandemic can often make young athletes feel like they are facing the same impossible challenges that Nyad encountered on her long and nearly impossible swim.

Globally, COVID-19 has brought the entire world, including the athletic world, to what feels like a screeching halt, and into virtual reality. The simulated reality is apparent when viewing an NBA basketball game, only to see the bleachers filled with 17-foot video screens and with images of fans in their own homes watching the games. It's not a surprise that the NBA took such extreme measures to isolate their players (and their families) in the NBA bubble to keep the players safe while keeping the game going. Sports are not only essential for individual health, community health, education, empowerment, inclusion, and social development, but also a major contributor to the global economy.

Unfortunately, unlike professional leagues, high school and collegiate athletics in the United States haven’t experienced the benefits of competing in an isolation bubble. Amateur, club, or NCAA programs have canceled or altered their athletic schedule disrupting the lives of many student-athletes from high school to college-level athletics, and sending their emotional health, athletic identity into a tail-spin, resulting in feelings of loss, anxiety, and depression.

This is not the first time (or last) that a pandemic has affected the human race, nor is 2020 the first year major sporting events were canceled as a result. In fact, the Spanish flu pandemic that decimated the global population in 1918 disrupted many central sporting events of the time such as Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Tour de France. While in regard to athletics, the difference between the two pandemics equates to billions of dollars, the emotional toll is similar. Individuals are experiencing feelings of loss and fear. Fear of the illness, and fear of the financial ramifications as universities and institutions struggle to cover the hundreds of millions (potentially billions) in losses, putting some sports programs (and universities) in a financial stress test, add to the anxiety of hundreds of thousands of student-athletes and their parents. 

To mitigate the feelings of grief, loss, anxiety, sadness, isolation, and confusion for your young athlete during these uncertain times, here are tips for your teen to help them "CHEER" through the pandemic.

Community: Community matters. Though we need to maintain proper social distancing, make sure to regularly reach out to your teammates, friends, and family. Use this time to build your community through reaching out and building bonds, virtually if necessary.

Healthy Eating: Maintain healthy eating habits. Though it may be a time where the temptation to engage in indulgence, remember to make healthy choices. Reach for fruit instead of sweets, and veggies instead of chips, and practice mindful eating.

Exercise: Stay active and keep moving. Many athletes across levels are used to training at least 2 hours per day. We know that exercise helps shift focus from worries and negative thinking patterns onto focus on our bodies and movement instead. Exercise eases symptoms of anxiety and depression by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters [l1] that make us feel good. One study even identified exercise as an effective antidepressant. The disruption in organized sports should not act as a disruption in your activity. Keep on moving. Set goals and a routine for yourself to maintain your fitness and self-confidence. Ask your coaches for a workout to do at home. Think of Nyad’s motto, “Find a way.”

Empathy: This is a great time to reflect on your love for your sport and remember why it is you are doing it. Revive the love for your sport and your love for yourself. This can help you remain positive and find meaning in each thing you do. Be kind to yourself. Your inner drive may be running on empty since it's the team community that helps your tank stay full. That is OK. Be kind to yourself. Connect with teammates. Now, more than ever, it is important to pay attention to your mental health, and extend compassion to others (at a safe distance).

Routine: Work to create some semblance of normalcy in your day-to-day life. Sure the circumstances are challenging. Seasons are canceled, you haven’t practiced in months, though it feels endless, the current pandemic is truly a temporary obstacle to your performance goals. Focus on what you can control: Create a routine and make sure that routine includes both activity and self-care. Be sure to add a restful activity that makes you feel good about yourself, whether it means engaging in a hobby, journaling, or even just playing catch with your dad. Last but not least, always make sure to get enough sleep.

Parents, if you notice that your teen is having difficulty focusing or sleeping if their anxiety or sadness are overwhelming them, please make sure to seek professional help for more support.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.