As college sports programs pivot, mental health becomes bigger priority

No one could accuse Sophia Garrido of not paying her dues.

The college junior had spent the past two years patiently waiting for her turn to step in as a goalkeeper for the University of California, San Diego, women’s soccer team and believed that after her predecessor, who’d been the starting goalkeeper for the previous three years and was recognized as one of the best players in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, had graduated, she’d get more playing time. Then the pandemic came.

“It was definitely a bummer because this was supposed to be the season where I got to get in games,” Garrido, whose season has been postponed to the spring barring major coronavirus pandemic developments, told NBC News. “When we found out our season was postponed, it definitely hit me a little different because I was so excited and so hopeful for this upcoming season.”

For college athletes like Garrido, sports aren’t merely an extracurricular activity. They’re often a lifeline.

“My whole life I’ve played soccer and used soccer as an outlet for my everyday life situations, and not having that for the past six months has really affected my mental health,” Garrido said. “I feel anxious all the time because I don’t have soccer. I haven’t been able to play with my team, and even though video workouts with them has helped, the combination of online school and uncertainty with soccer definitely weighs on your mental health.”

As the pandemic continues to throw lives in flux, college sports programs are no exception. Yet, athletic directors and coaches aren’t simply charged with the monumental task of preventing the spread of the virus among their players. They’re also acknowledging the need to address the possibility of a more silent, but equally serious, mental health crisis among student athletes for whom the pandemic has shaken and stripped their sense of identity and normalcy.

Heidi VanDerveer, the head college of U.C. San Diego’s women’s basketball team, believes increased attention should be given to students’ mental health.Derrick Tuskan / U.C. Sand Diego

According to a recent study conducted by University of North Texas researchers, more than 20 percent of approximately 6,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes surveyed in April and May were experiencing clinical depression and nearly 30 percent were experiencing subclinical depression, meaning that while they’ve exhibited depressive symptoms, they do not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. The research also showed that female athletes were not only experiencing depression at higher rates than their male counterparts — 16 percent of male athletes surveyed had clinical depression compared to a quarter of the women surveyed — but they were also experiencing higher rates of disordered eating.

A separate NCAA survey offered additional insight into college athletes’ well-being. Of the more than 30,000 college athletes who participated, 1 in 10 were having difficulty functioning because of depression as of April and May. Mental health concerns were higher among student athletes of color, including those who reported housing instability, food insecurity and lack of access to health care and appropriate facilities to maintain their training while gyms were closed.

While data examining rates of depression among the general population during the same time frame as the University of North Texas and NCAA studies are unavailable, these findings appear to be on par with a Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention studyon mental health released earlier this month, which showed that young adults aged 18 to 24 are among the groups who have disproportionately reported experiencing worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation during the pandemic. Given these findings, the CDC recommends implementing public health strategies centered on “intervention and prevention efforts” of mental health conditions.

“This is our life. We spend a lot of time training for this. We spend a lot of time to get here. There’s a saying, ‘We didn’t work this hard to get this far,’” Justin Jackson, a senior at Nova Southeastern University whose track and field season was canceled after two meets last spring, said.

He added that he’s been risking injury while training these past few months, as he has not been able to work out on turf.

“That’s an aspect of this conversation that people miss,” he said. “Our whole lives have been revolving around sports for as long as we can remember. … This is one thing we really need.”

The effort to salvage the fall season

As a former college track and field athlete, Devin Crosby understands firsthand how vital sports can be for students.

When Lynn University’s athletic season was cut short last season and students were sent home after their spring break because of the pandemic, the director of athletics registered students’ varying emotions, which spanned from anger to disbelief to sheer disappointment, and decided to prioritize athlete’s mental health. He recommended that all coaches meet with their teams weekly via video call, while maintaining an open line of communication with students himself.

While he did not attend school during a global pandemic, their plight feels familiar to him.

“Athletes define themselves by what they’ve done recently. That’s how their identity is shaped, and research shows that for athletes, that identity is often shaped by the time they’re 12 years old, because by the time you’re 12, your parents know whether you’re going to have a shot at athletics in college or not,” Crosby said. “And then all of a sudden, sports are rightfully canceled and you can’t even go outside because of lockdowns, depending on which country you’re from. … They were down and out because their identity was gone.”

Many colleges and sports conferences have already canceled their fall seasons outright. Others have even cut college teams completely because of budgetary woes and school closures induced by the pandemic, per the Associated Press. But for those schools associated with athletic conferences that haven’t yet made a final decision regarding the upcoming season or have pushed fall sports to the spring, coaches and athletic directors are doing everything in their power to salvage their students’ ability to play.

At Lynn University, for example, the athletic department is implementing a multi-stage training program built upon the NCAA’s resocialization plan, which includes physical distancing, hygiene, mask-wearing, testing and contact tracing. For the first couple of weeks of the academic school year, there will be no athletic activity while students return to campus. The next few weeks will have students training by themselves to limit contact and possible exposure. Following that phase, students may work out in small groups, which will be determined by positions, until “phase blue,” when normal activity will resume.

Devin Crosby, director of athletics at Lynn University, is creating a workshop for student athletes to help them gain resilience and introduce them to other career pathways.Lynn University

“I obviously want to play, but I understand it’s a very fluid situation,” Branden Ellis, a junior on Lynn University’s men’s basketball team, said. “People want a standstill answer. They want to know, ‘Are they gonna play or not?’ when in fact there’s a lot of different factors that have to be taken into consideration.”

Heidi VanDerveer, head coach of the University of California, San Diego, women’s basketball team, believes the ability to be flexible will be a significant factor in maintaining the possibility of playtime for athletes. She recalled how her players never achieved closure when their season was abruptly cut.

“Some people are better off at home, some are better off at their apartments at school,” VanDerveer said. “Mental health and physical health are different for everyone, so I’m navigating that component as a coach.”

With U.C. San Diego’s “Return to Learn” plan, which will be finalized in September, students can choose to take classes in person, remotely or a hybrid of both options. This includes student athletes, who VanDerveer said are under no obligation to return if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Two factors working in the school’s advantage are that it has a research hospital on campus and that its academic schedule runs on a quarter system, which gives the school more time to devise its plans for the upcoming year.

“In the beginning focused on physical safety, but as the isolation and uncertainty has progressed for about five months now, I feel like there’s been a definite shift over that time,” VanDerveer said. “We’re not just talking about physical safety, but emotional safety and there’s an awareness of how important mental health is.”

Looking beyond sports

There’s no doubt that for many student athletes, their top priority is getting back on the field or in the gym as soon as it’s safe to do so. Some, like Sierra Street, are even using their extra year of eligibility, an extension the NCAA granted to athletes whose seasons were cut short, to return to campus after graduating.

Street plans to play lacrosse while pursuing a graduate degree at Wingate University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree last spring.

“I can’t even tell you the heartbreak that we as seniors felt when our season was canceled. I couldn’t wrap my mind around having to move on with the way things ended,” Street, who’d been playing the sport since she was 6 years old, said. “Lacrosse has been everything to me. … I felt like I not only owed coming back to myself and for me wanting to be a role model for other young women of color playing this sport, but to my dad and family, who traveled for hours to take me to tournaments.”

Yet, others have chosen not to pursue the extra year of eligibility for various reasons. Either way, Crosby said the pandemic has shown the importance of introducing college athletes, who are often unable to complete internships or study abroad because of their demanding schedules, to other career and life pathways.

It has also carved out opportunity and time for coaches to do so. He is currently organizing a weekly workshop with administrators, athletes and other speakers centered on exploring other possibilities.

“We’re going to talk about resiliency over the course of this eight-week program,” Crosby said. “Organizations are struggling to do the right thing, because it is a hard balance. We’re trying to balance health, we’re trying to balance competition, we’re trying to balance money, but I was convinced even way before pandemic that if you know your values and have a strong culture, you can get through anything.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.