Mental well-being remains a key focus at NCAA Convention
The coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption in the lives of student-athletes, impacting their overall mental health and well-being.
Dropped routines that accompany collegiate athletics programs, coupled with accelerated transitions to a post-sport career, have cast clouds of ambiguity and identity crises across college and university campuses. Many have grieved the loss of a season, while others have suffered the loss of loved ones, assumed new roles in their family and social structures, and confronted the unknown for the first time in their lives.
On Jan. 13, the 2021 NCAA Convention kicked off its annual exploration of student-athlete mental health and well-being, a top priority of the Association, with the panel session “The FAR Role in Supporting Student-Athletes in the Time of COVID-19.” Faculty athletics representatives serve as liaisons between their schools and athletics departments, ensuring students receive the right balance of academics and athletics. FARs also serve as representatives of their schools in conference and NCAA affairs.
“While we are empathetic about the experiences our student-athletes are having, we must acknowledge that we are in a very different space than they are,” said Jo Hopp, FAR at Wisconsin-Stout and president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association. “It’s critical that we understand how our student-athletes are feeling, what are their concerns and what are their uncertainties, so we can offer support most effectively.”
Moderated by Hopp, the session featured three FARs from across the country who shared strategies on how to continue to connect with student-athletes in a meaningful way during the COVID-19 pandemic. By providing career preparation support through research mentorship and internship opportunities within athletics departments and encouraging students to stay grounded in the present to confront the future confidently, FARs emphasized they can and should cultivate a culture of accessibility and vulnerability as leaders to demonstrate support and a mutual understanding of the student-athlete situation.
Another relevant session, “Student-Athlete Mental Health Status Report: Coping With COVID-19 and Addressing Racial Justice,” occurred Jan. 14 and showcased data from four sources, including two student-athlete well-being surveys conducted in the spring and fall of 2020, to give a quantitative view of the state of mental health in NCAA schools. Staff members from the NCAA Sport Science Institute and office of inclusion addressed the data, which revealed the significant mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In addition to structural barriers, such as facilities closing or limiting activity, several of our participants indicated emotional barriers impacting their ability to train — including a fear of exposure to COVID-19,” said Lydia Bell, associate director of research for academic performance at the NCAA.
The session also delved into student-athlete activism and the effect of racial justice efforts on college athletes, with particular attention to supporting the mental well-being of student-athletes of color.
“Black lives matter, and that means Black mental health has to matter, too,” said Stephany Coakley, senior associate athletics director for mental health, wellness and performance at Temple. “Black student-athletes and other diverse student-athletes have so much to offer, and they give so much to member institutions and intercollegiate athletics. But we also know that diverse student-athletes often fall through the cracks of an already shaky system.”
When asked in the surveys how athletics staff or coaches can support athlete mental well-being, students suggested regular coach-athlete team or individual check-ins, establishing a peer-to-peer buddy system, prioritizing student-athlete mental health, and making program modifications that reflect the impact of COVID-19 on personal and team well-being.
A third session, a mental health panel for coaches and administrators Jan. 15, brought together Division II administrators, a coach and a student-athlete. The panel discussed the importance of mental health initiatives within an athletics department.
As a student-athlete at California University of Pennsylvania, Madeleine McKenna said she learned the huge role mental health plays in intercollegiate athletics during her freshman year.
“I’ve had my own experiences with depression and anxiety, and I remember wishing I had known at that time — at my darkest points — how many student-athletes go through the same problems as I do,” said McKenna, a member of the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the Division II Management Council who is on Cal U’s volleyball team and is majoring in psychology. “That’s what pushed me to seek an appointment to the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and work with the SAAC’s Mental Health Task Force to support students going through mental health issues. They shouldn’t be ashamed of it, and they should be able to seek help.”
A final session on mental health, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Student-Athlete Identity,” will offer direct insights from national Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members and athletics administrators. Panel members will explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their daily lives, including the changes they’ve adopted on campus and in academics and athletics. The session will be at noon Eastern time Tuesday.