Finding Ways to Support Young Athletes During Uncertain Fall, Winter Sports Seasons

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Madison, Wisconsin - Thousands of middle and high school students in Wisconsin face a 2020 school year full of unknowns, and a primary mode of coping for many is in limbo – school-sanctioned sports.


In school districts across the state, fall sports have been cancelled or postponed, and missing out on sports can have a profound impact on the young people participating, according to Claudia Reardon, associate professor of psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and consulting sports psychiatrist for Badger Athletics.


"Sports are so good for youth emotional development, not just the inherent physical benefit," she said. "They are often very good for mental and cognitive functioning, while helping to develop confidence, competence, character, caring, connectedness and friendships."


They are also associated with higher academic accomplishment, lower depression for youth participating in team sports, or combination of team and individual sports, and lower use rates of most substances, like drugs and alcohol, Reardon said.


Important to Address Youth Mental and Physical Needs Related to Sports Cancellations


Uncertainties associated with COVID-19, including the cancellation of youth sports, can trigger anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders in young people. And depression can be worsened by the physical disbanding of support structures like friends, non-household family and coaches, loss of exercise, which is powerfully anti-depressant, and daily structure, Reardon said.


"It's important to look for signs of worsening mental health, like feeling more worried, irritable, not looking forward to or enjoying things you usually enjoy, trouble sleeping or eating, or lower energy," she said.


In May, Reardon and Tim McGuine, UW Health athletic trainer, and researcher in the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, together with several UW colleagues, conducted a survey of more than 3,000 high school-age athletes in Wisconsin to gauge health impacts to students after sports were cancelled in March during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.


According to the study, 65 percent recorded symptoms of anxiety, with 40 percent being mild and about 13 percent severe, while around 12 percent were moderate. Sixty-eight percent reported symptoms of depression, with around 34 percent exhibiting mild symptoms and about 33 percent severe symptoms, while historically (pre-COVID-19) rates were about 22 percent and 9.7 percent, respectively.


The study also showed that physical activity fell by 50 percent after the cancellation of sports.


"Clearly, there is evidence from athletes across the state that when you take away the structure, camaraderie and physical activity—and all that comes with youth sports—kids are impacted," Reardon said.


But, as a society there are things families, coaches and peers can do to help address these impacts:

  • Respond with empathy and support if you see someone struggling ("How are things going with you?  I'm here for you.")
  • It can be helpful for coaches to stay in touch with their team virtually often (e.g., virtual practices when allowed, virtual team meetings/hangouts)
  • Maintain a regular daily schedule as much as possible, including time for exercise, meals, academics and virtual socializing
  • If you are very concerned about yourself or someone else, talk to a trusted adult, health care provider, or school official

"Mental health problems are common, and athletes of all ages aren't immune, but COVID-19 has created new risks to mental health in athletes," Reardon said. "If coaches, parents and athletes themselves understand the risk of mental health problems in athletes, there may be opportunities for prevention, earlier intervention and treatment."


Video: How to Help Teen Athletes Cope with the Uncertainty of Fall Sports


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Date Published: 08/10/2020

News tag(s):  coronavirusdaily updatesportsortho

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