The Connection We Crave

“We haven’t had a team meeting since March 12.”

Brent Brennan is the Head Football Coach at San Jose State. He’s in charge of over 100 young men and oversees a staff of over 20. His team only recently returned to campus in limited capacity, but Brennan says it’s still messy and complicated.

In the wake of a pandemic that shut down sports on a global level, a social justice movement that has given public voice and platforms to current and former athletes and an election right around the corner, coaches are guiding young athletes in more than systems, scouting reports and building team culture. Athletes and coaches are navigating new waters with heavy emotional and mental consequences.

The Numbers
From the beginning of the pandemic to now, mental health statistics on depression and anxiety are way up in populations and demographics across the board – as of May 2020, anxiety screenings on mhascreening.org have increased by 370% over January. Prior to Covid-19, nearly 1 in 5 reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder and during the pandemic that number increased to more than 1 in 3. Perhaps most alarmingly, 21,000 people considered self-harm or suicide in the month of May alone (see Kaiser Family Foundation article titled “The Implications of Covid-19 for Mental Health and Substance Abuse” for additional information, statistics and research specific to the pandemic).

Clear numbers for student-athlete populations are yet to be determined, but here’s what we know: social isolation, loneliness, disruption of daily routines and not engaging in person with peers and teammates are all contributors to the increase in reports of mental health in youth populations who have been removed from school and/or sports programs.

“The pandemic has either revealed mental health issues that were previously unknown or created mental illnesses that was not there before. What we are seeing is an increase in anxiety and excessive worry,” said Joe Jardine, a Marriage and Family Therapist who teaches a university level psychology class and treats clients throughout Orange County, California.

Jardine is also a performance coach for professional (NFL, MLB) and collegiate (NCAA, PAC-12) athletes, teams and coaches and has noticed some trends since the pandemic started early this year,

“People are feeling helpless because they can’t do anything about it and they are feeling hopeless because there is no end in sight. When helpless and hopeless meet, that’s where we have mental health problems,”.

Joe Jardine, MFT

The Athletes
Samantha Arellano is going into her junior season as a collegiate volleyball player. When quarantine hit, her coach did what many coaches did at the time – made sure to connect with and provide as much structure to her team as possible. Skill workouts as well as strength and conditioning workouts were provided and adjusted for each athlete depending on what equipment was available to them in their homes. The structure was nice, but without teammates, motivation wasn’t as easy to find.

Arellano, who has suffered from social anxiety and depression even before her sports career said “quarantine brought on a lot of mental challenges. I hit a low point during the quarantine when I felt like I couldn’t do it on my own. But I had to learn to struggle on my own, with no one two feet away from me saying “Samantha, you can do this.”

Another collegiate volleyball player, who wished to remain anonymous, found similar struggles. While her coaches and teammates connected via weekly zoom calls and continued their group chats, the lack of physical connection or gathering began to take it’s toll. As an athlete who rehabbed through several injuries to train for Spring season, news of the cancellation was difficult.

“I was finally getting healthy and to have that removed again, it was a gut punch,” she said.

Current Volleyball Athlete, NCAA, Division I

As important as rehabbing her physical injuries, she has a mental health history of PTSD (discovered through athlete counseling a few years earlier) that requires her to recognize triggers and lean on her support system to stay healthy.

“In terms of health and mental health, it was amazing. My therapist was reachable by phone and I can still see her by FaceTime if I need to,” she said. Like Arellano, she found difficulty and struggle early on, but also found meaning and purpose in that struggle. While most athletes know how to solve problems on the court and in the weight room where things are assigned and controllable to an extent, life off the court doesn’t have the same rules.

“Quarantine allowed me to cope with things better, but at the same time it forced me to push the limits of my frustration. I found I could solve issues off the court too. By pushing myself, it made me more confident. I found my own voice off the court,” she said.

So, What’s Working?
While most athletes and students are back on campus, some in limited capacity, it’s still complicated. Training in some conferences is just that, training. There’s no short term goal or long term answers being provided and no competitions to be played. Athletic programs are learning new information every day and every week. The structure they do have comes in the form of practice and school.

But without consistent face to face access to athletes, it’s hard to identify what their actual needs are.

“Some of the young people I’m working with, they don’t have a healthy home environment. That space is really complicated for some,” says Brent Brennan.

Brent brennan, Head football coach, San Jose state university

Despite limited physical connection between coaching staff and teammates, one thing Brennan has added in recent years – and continued weekly throughout quarantine and returning to school – is the addition of a sports psychologist and the Headspace app. This not only helps improve their game, it leads to better mental health and equips them with tools they need for sport and life.

So, what’s working? What can we learn from collegiate programs, coaches and athletes?

Connect.
* Check in with your athletes, regularly.
* Know your mental health resources and how to refer your athletes.
* Ask hard questions. Not just about sports, but about their lives.
* Determine what stressors to take on and which ones to refer out.
* Enlist as many supportive people as you can for athletes and staff.
* Coaches need to stay healthy too. Get rest when you can.
* Have your sports psych do a coaches meeting to give your staff healthy resources too.

And those video conferencing calls? Keep them going.

“It is some connection. It’s not the connection we crave, but it’s still connection,” said Brennan.


Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is the co-author “30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, A Habit for Life” and author of “30 Day Return to Play Journal” available for pre-order now. 

She is an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, SEC Freshman and Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played with the US National Team and enjoyed a season of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level (PAC-12 Beach Volleyball). She is married with two children and currently coaches performance and mindset journaling to youth and college athletes and coaches.

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