Student athletes continue to be uniquely impacted by the forced closures caused by COVID-19
Ten months. It has now been over 10 months since the coronavirus cancelled sporting events around the world. There have been countless attempts since to safely bring major sporting events back — some have even been successful.
Unfortunately for Canadian university athletes, not a single game has been played since the first lockdown began. Seasons have been cancelled, teams were forced to split up into smaller groups to practise, and with the latest provincial stay-at-home order, most of Ryerson’s student athletes are unable to engage in a shootaround or free skate.
The pandemic has been rife with stories about athletes struggling worldwide, whether it be the uncertainty of when their next game will be or if they will even return to their teams when it is all said and done.
Not only do these athletes have to deal with the negative symptoms associated with being unable to participate in sports, but they are also affected by the social isolation one feels in the midst of a pandemic. The inability to compete and even work out in a group setting leaves athletes vulnerable to a rapid decline in mental health. For many athletes, exercise isn’t just a routine; it is a part of their lives.
And yet, the pandemic has meant many student athletic careers abruptly came to an end. For others, the lack of structure and inability to work out has affected their mental health and ability to remain productive. Research has shown that playing sports and exercising has a positive impact on one’s mental health. Playing sports helps to decrease the symptoms of depression, according to a study in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
“Absolutely we have been kept busy with the new problems the athletes are coming to us with and as the end date (of the pandemic) continues to shift back, people are starting to hit a wall … students are struggling,” said Colleen Conroy Amato, the athletics counsellor at Ryerson University.
Amato works directly with student athletes to provide counselling services and said she has seen plenty of new student athletes need the services she provides.
Loneliness and a lack of structure are two of the most common adversities that student athletes have faced during this time of extended isolation, she said.
“Student athletes are used to a structured day and juggling a bunch of things at once. Taking that lifestyle away from them can be very detrimental,” said Amato.
Apart from the general university workload, student athletes had daily practices and workouts as well as weekly games, both home and away, to keep up with before the pandemic. Being an athlete can become a huge part of one’s identity, Amato said. To have that taken away so abruptly can be very hard to grasp and come to terms with.
Leyki Sorra, a fourth-year player on the varsity women’s basketball team at Ryerson says not having the social aspect of daily practices and workouts is hurting her overall happiness. Her teammates are some of her best friends so not seeing them every day as she is accustomed to has been really challenging. Without all the away tournaments, bus rides and time off the court, Sorra has found it very emotional to say goodbye to such a big part of her life.
“The hardest part is knowing that a big part of my life is coming to an end and I was not even able to compete, in what is most likely going to be my last year at Ryerson,” said Sorra. “I always knew that this day would come but I had no idea that the last game was going to be my last ever.”
In a study done by the NCAA, they found a majority of the student athletes have been experiencing high rates of mental distress since the outset of the pandemic. Over one-third cited sleeping problems, while one-quarter reported feeling sad and lost.
As we continue to wait to see how the pandemic will impact the 2021-2022 season, Ryerson’s athletes and coaches are continuing to find ways to stay engaged and motivated to benefit their overall health, according to Amato. Whether it be the small group workouts held earlier in the pandemic or remote zoom workouts now, student athletes are connecting through their shared love of sport and activity.