Finding order in the chaos: how the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of athletes

Story by BRYNNA MAXWELL

The benefits of playing a sport at any level are endless. From cool gear, to free food, to notoriety and fame, who would not want to be in their shoes? Athletes have it all … or do they?

Looking back at the year 2020, everyone knows it was not easy. The pandemic impacted so many people and has been talked about so much, that it has become normalized, commonplace, mundane, even boring. 

However, one topic that seems to have been glossed over is the effect COVID-19 has had on athletes — whether high school, collegiate, or professional. 

The toll the pandemic has taken on the mental health of these competitors has been monumental and has affected every level of athletics.

Meghan Edwards is a senior at Gig Harbor High School in Washington state this year. She has played varsity basketball for three years and has played competitive basketball since middle school. 2021 is her final year of playing basketball. Or it would have been if not for the worldwide pandemic. 

Meghan Edwards shoots a jumper during a game against Eastlake High School in 2019. Photo courtesy of Meghan Edwards.

Her last year of playing the sport she loves has been stripped away and cut down to just a few short weeks beginning in May.

It has impacted her acutely and has robbed her of some of the joy she used to have for the game she loves.

“COVID-19 is slowly tearing away the love I have for basketball,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “Since I am forced to be away from the basketball atmosphere and self-isolate, it is making me feel unmotivated to train and practice.”

This emotional spiral resulting from isolation is very common for athletes who are being forced to shut down team activities and stay away from each other.

Edwards has endured quite a few changes because of this.

“I have noticed I would rather be at home by myself than hanging out with people, especially people I am not extremely close to,” Edwards said. “I have also been going through different phases where my mental health is great, and I am super motivated and productive. And then some days I am super hard on myself and then feel very unmotivated.”

Edwards has since developed new hobbies such as painting and listening to podcasts to give herself a mental break from the emotional chaos resulting from all of the ups and downs and unknowns of this year. 

Every sport has been affected in one way or another.

Utah sophomore and softball player A.J. Militello has had her first two collegiate seasons dramatically impacted because of COVID-19.

“It was really strange, really surreal,” Militello said in a FaceTime interview. “You got to this point of asking yourself what’s the point of even playing sports?”

Because Militello plays a spring sport, her team is just starting their 2021 season and so far, COVID-19 has still been a huge factor in everything they do. It has changed the way they conduct practices, travel, lift weights, and even room together on road trips. 

The fall softball season was canceled and so were all of the other activities over the last six months of the 2020 year, forcing the team to adapt and live day to day, never knowing what will happen.

Militello said, “We weren’t allowed to practice when we came back (from summer break). All we were allowed to do was individual groups.  And then we finally got cleared to do full team practice on a taped-off field wearing a mask the entire time. If your mask was below your nose, you got sent home. We weren’t allowed to break the rules.”

These strict guidelines carried over into the 2021 softball season where there are rules on how to eat, act, and even stand when doing team events and activities. The players have to make sure they are at least 6 feet apart at all times and when eating a group meal, they have to eat by themselves. In their own rooms. In total isolation. 

All this has taken quite the mental toll on Militello and her team. 

“Because of all the time we weren’t allowed to play, a lot of people were really struggling with figuring out who they were outside of being a Division I athlete,” she said. “A lot of people put all their worth into their sport and when it gets taken away, they don’t know what to do.”

Professional soccer player Stephanie Cox , an Olympian and a gold medalist, can relate to that and more when reflecting on the past year. 

Stephanie Cox with her daughter and husband after a soccer match. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cox.

For her, she was one of the few who was allowed to play through the pandemonium of the pandemic. 

The National Women’s Soccer League played a short season in one location in Salt Lake City. Cox’s team, the Reign, was lucky enough to get through the short spurt of a season with no negative impact from COVID-19.

However, having to play through the heart of the pandemic caused her and her team to become emotionally exhausted. 

“The hardest part was that it was a shorter season and most players wanted to make the most of it, so they played super tight,” Cox said in a phone interview. “There was not a lot of time to warm up into the season.”

Normally, Reign FC plays around 25 games in a season before playoffs. However, the 2020 season was cut short because of the pandemic. 

Even though these athletes were beat up the past year emotionally and mentally, the players interviewed all had a common theme from their experiences: growth.

Cox said, “I have gotten a fresh appreciation for being able to play. Next time I get the chance to play, I am not going to feel any pressure and tension and just soak it all in.”

That “next time” is coming fast as the 2021 season is set to start April 9.

Softball player A.J. Militello learned a life lesson that some athletes never fully grasp. When reflecting, she said, “Sports are not what you are, it’s what you do. You should never put your identity into something like a sport that can be taken away just like that.”