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Student Athlete Welfare During the Coronavirus Shutdown: Out of Sight is Not Out of Mind

While the return of college sports has been widely discussed, the student athletes themselves have largely not. But that doesn’t mean they’ve been forgotten.

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, 2020. The next day, conference basketball tournaments across the country were cancelled. The NCAA quickly followed suit, cancelling the NCAA tournament less than a week before it was to begin. At the time, the move seemed unthinkable. Just a few weeks later, it seemed unthinkable to have even considered playing. Intercollegiate spring sports were cancelled. Team activities, along with in-person classes, were suspended.

Unimaginably, in the space of a fortnight, the world of college athletics (along with the professional leagues) shut down. Student athletes across the country left campus and returned to their respective homes, away from their teams and teammates, not knowing when they’d return to the playing field. Or to class, for that matter.

In the weeks since, rumors and speculation of when the games will return have dominated newspapers, blogs and radio shows. With no games on which to report, and sports pages and airtime to fill, the talk has turned to the absence of action on the fields of play. But while the games (or lack thereof) have been discussed at great length, the student athletes themselves have largely not. That’s not to say, however, that they’ve been forgotten.

In a recent radio interview, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh was asked if he and his coaches have been in contact with his players. “I talk to at least a few guys every day,” Harbaugh responded. Harbaugh added, “We’ve had team meetings, we’ve had unit meetings, individual meetings, special teams meetings, coaching staff meetings. Doing it all remotely.” In short, lots of meetings.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, football programs (and to a lesser extent, basketball programs) are the face of college sports. It stands to reason that Michigan’s coaches (along with college football staffs across the country) are keeping close tabs on their players.

But such interaction is not limited to student athletes who participate in the so-called “revenue-generating” sports. During a webcast in March, members of Michigan’s athletic support staff shared stories of interactions with student athletes in sports ranging from gymnastics to soccer to swimming.

And it’s more than just coaches who are reaching out.

Michigan’s Senior Associate Athletic Director and Chief Health and Welfare Officer Darryl Conway describes Michigan’s plan as a “360 degree approach,” with support coming from across disciplines and reaching out across sports. With athletic trainers, dieticians and counsellors in frequent contact with Michigan’s displaced student athletes, it really is a collective effort.

Fans have obsessed about the hole in their lives that the sports shutdown has left, but for fans, sports are just a sideline, a distraction. For current student athletes, their entire way of life has been disrupted, seemingly overnight. This is not lost on Michigan’s support staff.

Abigail Eiler, Michigan’s Assistant Director of Athletic Counselling, points out that the displaced student athletes have gone from a very structured life on campus in a team environment to a very unstructured one at home. The lives the student athletes left behind were, “very team oriented and structured and now they’re all independent.” With this in mind, Michigan’s support staff was quick to act. Conway explained that, “Everyone (on the support staff) mobilized (quickly), as to what we can do to support the student athletes.” “The goal,” Conway continued, was to, “think about what we need to do … to support the student athletes.”

One way to return some structure to the student athletes’ lives was to help establish work out regimens. Strength coaches and trainers, therefore, have been at the forefront of Michigan’s effort. Conway noted that, “(Michigan’s) strength coaches have worked hard to develop exercise programs for them (the student athletes). Knowing that most student athletes don’t have access to gyms or even elaborate exercise equipment, the staff has been forced to be creative. “It’s amazing what you can do with your body weight,” Conway said. Harbaugh also discussed the creativity of the trainers and the student athletes. Harbaugh was especially impressed with some of his football players’ creativity, noting that he had, “guys doing squats with backpacks on, one-legged squats and lunges,” and even one-legged lunges on a flower pot. “Cool stuff,” said Harbaugh.

Michigan’s support staff was also quick to help its student athletes establish nutrition plans. Carolyn Mandel, Michigan’s Director of Performance Nutrition, talked about “being present and available for the athletes,” and how important it was to, “get the baseline education started immediately – then reinforced.” Similar to when the student athletes are on campus, Mandel said that her team has created specific diet plans for specific sports.

There’s also the academic side, and Michigan’s staff of academic counsellors is making sure its displaced student athletes are engaged academically during their time away from campus. Michigan’s Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director and head of the university’s Academic Success Program, Kenneth Miles, discussed the desire to, “try to conduct business as usual,” for the student athletes. “It’s important for us to still set up tutoring and mentoring appointments for our students,” Miles said, “just as if they were still here physically. That’s what we’re doing to minimize some of the anxiety that folks might have and try to add clarity to some of the uncertainty.”

It’s more than fitness, diet and classes, however. The Los Angeles Times reported that prolonged isolation has been linked to increased depression, anxiety and stress. These feelings can be compounded when other factors are at play. Eiler noted that, in particular, a break in routine coupled with the uncertainty surrounding a return to normalcy can create a lot of anxiety in college students.

Eiler and the athletic counselling department are doing what they can to combat this. This includes not only helping establish new routines, but also, “keeping an eye out for any special mental health issues,” and, “making sure to provide support and linking to local care, should they (student athletes) need it.” As much as anything, that means keeping the lines of communication open.

While Michigan is not the only university taking these steps, this behind-the-scenes activity is largely unknown to those who normally tune in just for the games. So, while fans anxiously await the return of intercollegiate athletics, university support staffs, like the one at Michigan, are not only making sure that the displaced student athletes are prepared for their eventual return their respective playing fields, but also that they’re doing well in the interim.