By Audrey Berling || Contributing Writer
Athletes are known for being some of the most tenacious and mentally strong individuals in the world. Their ability to persevere through tough situations during competition and in everyday life is unmatched. So why are so many athletes, including myself, struggling mentally during this pandemic?
The pandemic has stripped most athletes of everything they have worked for during their entire young adult life. In order to play collegiate level sports, countless sacrifices were made. Prior to the pandemic, many of us devoted all of our energy to being an athlete, and have spent our weekends in high school training and studying, instead of going out on Friday nights. When COVID-19 began to spread, seasons were canceled and teams were broken up. Cherished teammates were scattered all over the world when schools shut down. Every athlete’s entire foundation had been pulled out from underneath them. The people we spent time with and the practices we had every single day were no longer a part of everyday life nor were they accessible. The feeling was comparable to being mugged in the middle of winter, left with no clothes and no phone.
A lot of athletes feel like they have lost their identity. Self-reflection conjured up a lot of uneasy feelings as many of us realized we had no idea who we were without our sport or what we were going to do without it. There had never been enough time to dedicate to joining other clubs, learning other skills, or making loads of friends outside of our teammates. Athletes now have to search for other support systems in places we have never looked before.
Amid all this confusion, some athletes may feel even more uncertainty of what is to come as there is no longer any clear direction for athletes to follow. The future seems grim with most seasons being canceled all over the nation and a slow vaccine rollout threatening next year’s seasons. With very little to look forward to and nothing to train for, it is easy for athletes to get distracted in other unhealthy habits as a form of coping or as a distraction. Heavy drinking, smoking, partying, and even over-training are common crutches that athletes use when they feel a loss in sense of direction. With lowered activity levels and unhealthy coping mechanisms among athletes, it is no surprise that depression is on the rise as these new habits are so different from their usual healthy lifestyle and strict training regime.
Athletes are also used to being incredibly busy, barely squeezing friends and extracurriculars into their schedules. There has always been a 6 a.m. lift to be ready for, coaches to tell us what time practice is, and the weekends having to be blocked off for hour-long competitions. The pandemic suddenly caused many athletes to feel stranded with no rhyme or reason to their schedules. After spending every waking hour working towards the goal of being in peak physical and mental shape to perform well in the upcoming season, athletes were left disappointed and disoriented. Confusion sets in with copious amounts of extra leisure time.
Adjusting to a new, more sedentary lifestyle is not easy for many athletes. It was common knowledge that athletes would face mental challenges as this pandemic progressed but one challenge I don’t think many people talk about or had expected was body image issues and disordered eating. As athletes, we express ourselves in this world with our bodies. We spend countless hours in the gym and on courts/fields/rinks to enable our bodies to accomplish unthinkable feats. We are so used to being in peak physical shape almost year round that it is hard to see ourselves fall out of shape. Body image is already hard for athletes because we are so focused on developing muscle or cutting fat throughout our season. Yet with decreased activity due to the pandemic and a voracious appetite, extra pounds may have crept onto our normally physically-fit bodies. This change in body type is unpleasant and scary for athletes because it can be a direct threat to our self-expression and identity. This is where disordered eating can arise because on top of an already distorted body image, athletes are confused and uncomfortable in the new body they have found themselves in and are desperate to get their old self back.
I have slowly seen fellow athletes get back in the swing of things- creating their own workout schedules and keeping the faith that there will be a season next year. We are as tenacious as they come, so we will find a way to move forward. It is necessary, however, to acknowledge the intense mental health challenges all athletes are currently experiencing. In addition to acknowledging these challenges, having access to mental health resources is extremely important. At F&M, we are lucky to have a club devoted to mental health awareness called The Pizza Project. The Pizza Project is holding a zoom meeting focused on athlete mental health on February 24th at 3pm EST and everyone is welcome. Guest speakers include Olivia Lubarsky, a former D1 gymnast, and Gavin Jones, a former squash athlete and current Squash coach at Franklin and Marshall College. I encourage everyone to attend to learn more about what some of their fellow friends and teammates may be going through.
Sophomore Audrey Berling is a contributing writer. Her email is email@example.com.