The Effects of covid-19 on young athletes

The Effects of covid-19 on young athletes

Covid-19 has brought astronomical levels of disruption and uncertainty. It’s like we are all wearing a 20lb weight vest. Although we are all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat so that vest may be heavier for some than others. Nonetheless we’re all impacted. 

One group that has faced significant disruption is athletes. When this group is discussed we may automatically think of professional sports organizations who had altered seasons, or elite athletes having to wait another year to compete at the Olympics. It is important to remember that children and youth who participate in sports, whether at a recreational or competitive level have also faced significant impacts. In addition to physical health benefits, sports play a large role in psychological well-being and emotional development.

Compared to youth who do not engage in sports, youth who do are more likely to have better mood and perceptions of themselves, feel a greater sense of competence, experience physical and psychological well-being, have an increased control over their behaviour, develop positive social skills, and have greater life satisfaction. 

When sports are stopped abruptly, or face disruption, we often don’t realize the impact they play on our mental health. For many, participation in sport provides an outlet for worry, frustration, anger, and feeling down. When this physical outlet is taken away it may cause an individual to feel their emotions more intensely. Additionally, those who play sports often associate a large part of their identity to being an athlete. Due to the pandemic many individuals may have struggled with how to work through intense emotions that build up inside due to not having their typical outlet of sport to let them out. Parents may have observed new and/or concerning behaviours due to this, and children and youth may feel confusion and/or shame due to these reactions.

Compared to last year at this time it appears we are much closer to regaining a sense of “normalcy” in our lives. It is hard to predict what this new “normal” will look like and moving towards it may bring up a variety of feelings and emotions. As we move forward we may feel anxious about returning to what our lives were like prior to the pandemic. For athletes, pre-pandemic life may have consisted of very little free time and the pressure of juggling training and competitions, with the responsibilities of everyday life. The ability of navigating these pressures as an athlete is typically conditioned from a young age and as a result the transition back to sport may pose both physical and mental challenge.

The return to sport during the Covid-19 pandemic is similar to the return following an injury. As with an injury everyone’s response will vary and is dependent on a variety of factors. For the most part, in Ontario at least, everyone has experienced the same training disruptions and time away from organized sport and competition. Although these factors are similar our individual personalities, and the impact of this time off are unique and may have influence on this transitional period. Many athletes will feel immense pressure to get back to a pre-pandemic level of functioning as soon as they are given the opportunity, whereas others may question how they are going to return to this lifestyle and as a result may choose to leave sport altogether. There are many reasons why an athlete may feel anxious about returning to pre-pandemic life and it is important to remember anything and everything you may feel is valid.

One important tip during this period of transition is to remember to practice self-compassion. To put it simply, self-compassion involves treating ourselves the way we would treat a friend who may be having a tough time. As humans, and I would argue, even more as athletes, we place immense pressure on ourselves and can be highly self-critical. Be kind to yourself. You are currently experiencing a global pandemic. Take time to care for yourself and be patient with progress in respect to returning to pre-pandemic activities. It is also important to remember that you as a human are not alone in this experience. Everyone is impacted by this one way or another. Talk to coaches, or teammates about their experiences. This may allow you to show greater compassion to yourself if you are aware that others are also experiencing similar challenges. Mindfulness has also been shown to be an important practice within self-compassion. Rather than judging, avoiding, or suppressing difficult thoughts and feelings, those who exercise self-compassion embrace and validate them. Mindfulness practices can also help us stay in the moment rather than spending time worrying about “what ifs” or spending time wishing for what we don’t have, rather than appreciating what we do. 

Guest Blogger: Ellyn Klea, MSW, RSW

Sport Social Worker

Clinical Associate, Bloom: Child & Family Therapy