The COVID-19 pandemic adds to mental health struggles already felt by young athletes.
Craig Cypher, Psy.D., clinical and sport psychologist, orthopaedics and physical performance, University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York.
As children across the country return to in-person school this fall, many are—for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—also coming back to organized sports activities. Missing out on youth sports may have been difficult for some, but the return can present challenges as well; in addition to regaining their physical conditioning, some kids are struggling with the mental component of resuming athletic competition.
Children’s Hospitals Today caught up with Craig Cypher, Psy.D., clinical and sport psychologist, orthopaedics and physical performance, University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, to discuss how young athletes are responding to the pandemic’s stressors and what their health care teams can do to help them through this time.
How has pandemic affected kids with respect to their involvement in sports?
For some young athletes, especially those who have ambitious goals and strong identities built around sports, there's been a sense of loss—they lost the connections with their teammates and coaches. I’m also seeing some anxiety about returning to competition and feeling they’ve fallen behind.
With the pandemic, we had this reset—there was already a lot of pressure before the pandemic on the young athletes I see in terms of what they're going through, the intensity of the sports they’re playing and how much time they're dedicating to them—and some athletes have reexamined whether they want to get back in that rat race.
I have one athlete who was very much on a Division I-focused, high-intensity track, but recently was talking about maybe accepting a Division III opportunity. One of the things that stood out to him as he was going on a campus visit was that he could still do a study-abroad program in the spring if he went to this college, whereas if he went to the Division I school, he couldn’t—because it would be high intensity all the time.
So now he's reexamining what he even wants out of college—what's the right fit? The pandemic has brought about an opportunity to reexamine some things.
How do you explain the newfound perspective for these kids regarding the sports with which they were so involved pre-pandemic?
There are so many things we just took as certain pre-pandemic—we took for granted that there are going to be high school soccer games on a Tuesday night or we're always going to have sports and that is just how life is. We really saw just how uncertain so many aspects of life are.
This generation has had to wrestle with this at a young age, and I think that's part of what's going on here. They have realized a lot of things we took for granted as certain are uncertain—that life is uncertain. How do they find their own sense of being able to control the things they can and let go of the things they can't during that uncertainty?
For a number of athletes, it’s meant reassessing single-sport specialization and all the stress that goes with that. Maybe they’re getting reengaged in other sports that were just for fun for them as opposed to something that was serious and intense. Can they make time for some of these other things? That's certainly on their minds.
Are the stressors associated with COVID-19 driving more demand for sports psychology consultations?
I'm seeing a higher degree of interest, and speaking with some of my colleagues, it seems everyone’s practices are full, and some are having difficulty accommodating new patients.
We’re also seeing a renewed emphasis on mental health; prominent athletes—from Naomi Osaka to Simone Biles to Dak Prescott—are talking about mental health. We're seeing more mainstream discussion and adoption of how important mindset, mental health and mental wellness are in athletics. We know how powerful these people in the spotlight are and when they're bringing to light some of these important topics, it has a ripple effect—people feel heard.
What advice would you offer to pediatricians who may be seeing more patients struggling with their return to sports?
One of my colleagues always talks about the idea of "listen, persuade, refer." Just being able to find the time to ask questions about how they're doing mentally—how their stress has changed with the pandemic, how it has impacted them and how they are managing their stress. Asking some of those questions and getting a chance to listen and then being able to both persuade and refer, like, "Have you ever thought about speaking with a sports psychologist?"
Some athletes had never even heard of the idea of a sports psychologist before—that there's somebody who knows and understands their area of expertise and can help them through some of the challenges specific to it. I think being able to do that and helping them understand there are people on the mental health side who work with athletes, knowing who those people are in your community and being able to connect to them is important.