Mental health issues surface as high school athletes cope without sports during the pandemic

Last March, Catholic High athletic director Lyndsey Boyce gathered all the Crusader athletes together.

She wanted to talk to them about COVID-19 and a possible time schedule about when they could return to the field and courts.

“I gathered them all in the bleachers outside and I said, ‘Listen guys, everybody is saying two weeks, but I’m going to be honest, I think it’s going to be a little bit longer,” Boyce recalled. “But we’re going to be back out here.”

That was six months ago.

At public schools around Hampton Roads and the state, students still aren’t back in school.

Some private schools, including Catholic, have welcomed students back on campus but under strict guidelines.

Athletes have been able to condition and lift weights under social distancing. But there won’t be any organized practices or games in the Tidewater Conference for several months. The conference will hold winter sports from Nov. 9-Jan. 30, fall sports from Feb. 1-March 27 and spring sports from March 29-May 22.

“If you would have told me that we wouldn’t be back on the field until almost 2021,” Boyce said, “I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy.’”

She thought she would have hosted tournaments this summer for spring athletes and definitely been back on the fields and courts this fall.

“I keep telling the kids that this is temporary, and it seems to be heading in a positive direction, but I’ve broken a lot of promises to them since March,” she said. “The longer they are under these restrictions, the greater the ripple effects that this will have on our kids.”

A recent survey of high school athletes across the nation suggests that the cancellation of youth sports since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on their mental health.

The study, completed by a team of physicians, child health experts and researchers from UW Health and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found that approximately 68 percent of the 3,243 student-athletes surveyed reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention – that’s up 37 percent from past research studies.

The study also reported that physical activity levels were 50 percent lower than they were for kids prior to the pandemic and that quality-of-life scores were lower than researchers had ever found in similar studies.

Boyce isn’t surprised by the results. She’s seen first-hand how no sports has affected the athletes.

“I’ve no doubt seen a huge difference in the overall mental health and demeanor of these kids since (COVID-19) started,” she said. “They are out of shape-physically and emotionally, and hanging by a thread spiritually. If we’re not just as concerned about the mental health of these student-athletes as we are about COVID, then shame on us.”

Her daughter, Kennedy, is a freshman at Catholic and will play field hockey and lacrosse.

“I see how it’s affected my kid and she’s easy going,” she said. “I just noticed a difference in her not being able to be out there with her team and trying to make new friends as a freshman.”

Catholic senior Joey Kagel said he’ll never forget how he and his teammates felt when they learned the Crusaders would not be playing football this fall.

“Finding out our season was postponed crushed the team,” said Kagel, a lineman. “The best thing for us, though, is having each other and sticking together as a team even though we are training for over a year, preparing for a season that is still not guaranteed to happen.

“As a captain,” he continued, “I have had to calm down my teammate’s fears about the season, even though I do not even have any idea what is going on.”

Dr. Adela Roxas said all of these feelings of stress, anxiety and fear are expected.

Roxas is a licensed clinical, sport and performance psychologist who has a private practice in Virginia Beach. She works with many middle school, high school and college athletes. She also works with professional athletes.

“They’re finding this period very difficult, as many people are, because so much has changed about our day-to-day lives,” said Roxas, who grew up in Hampton Roads and played a variety of sports, including college tennis at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “It’s been really hard on a lot of people. And a lot of people have been experiencing anxiety, depression at times . . . It’s been a very difficult adjustment process.”

Roxas said the problem is athletes are accustomed to structure. When that’s gone, it creates problems.

“This is a big loss and then suddenly they’re trying to figure out, ‘Wait, how do I give myself structure,’” she said. “It was a big adjustment and it still is, as we’re all still adjusting to these new conditions.”

This is the first time in 23 years that Mike Biehl is not a part of fall football.

Biehl, a former star at Salem High in Virginia Beach, was the 2001 All-Tidewater Player of the Year and all-state selection. He also played at Iona before getting into coaching. He spent time at spent time at Northern Illinois and Kent State, and in high school at Kellam and Tallwood.

He’s been the head football coach at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy for five seasons.

“As tough as that is for me, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a kid in this situation,” he said. “Put yourself in their shoes. It’s not a good thing. I know there’s worse things going on right now but for some of these kids that I coach, and all around Hampton Roads, this is what they hang their hat on. And they don’t have that right now. So, in that mindset, it’s really difficult.”

A teacher recently asked Biehl how he was doing.

“I kind of looked at them and said, ‘I’m not doing well,’” he said. “This isn’t normal. And it’s been a huge adjustment. But at the end of the day, we all preach that we have to be really thankful for the things that we have. I’m healthy. My wife is healthy. And my two kids are healthy. And all of the kids I coach are healthy.”

One of the things Roxas does with her clients is to have them focus on goals, athletically and academically. She tries to encourage them to focus on their strengths. And to set up daily schedules even with no sports going on. That could include a workout goal to motivate them.

“There’s not really a simple answer,” she said. “But what you can do is still work and develop in your sport even when you can’t predict when you’re going to compete. Again, concentrate on what can I still do? Get them to continue to work and improve.”

Rozas said COVID-19 is making athletes seek help.

“What I hear from colleagues and what I’ve experienced, the pandemic has definitely kind of increased the number of people who are reaching out for psychotherapy,” he said. “That’s a good thing. We don’t want people to be in distress. But if it means people are saying, ‘Hey, I can get some help.’ Then that’s good.”

Kagel, who also plays lacrosse, said he’s used the time without football to train and get bigger, strong and faster.

“I know a lot of people that have been discouraged due to the postponement of the season, which is justified after losing something they have worked so hard for,” said Kagel, who maintains a grade-point average over 4.0. “But I have been trying to see the positives of our situation. Everything is happening for a reason. I just need to trust in God’s plan.”

Kennedy Boyce said being a freshman, she had hoped to use this time to bond with teammates. She’s trying to remain positive but admits it’s been a challenge.

“I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, but I’m definitely not myself,” she said. “This is just not how I pictured my first year of high school. I think we all just want yesterday and yesterday isn’t on the menu for us anymore.”

Biehl said it is important for him as a coach to set the example, even though it’s tough. He said he must keep his players motivated.

“I think it’s more important more than ever to be a coach who can just be there for these guys,” he said. “I know that’s what we’re trying to do. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing right now is very easy. So, we kind of have to suck it up and do the best we can.”

Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449,


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