New event series aims to help student athletes grappling with mental health during COVID

Monday was the first of Emerson's Counseling and Psychological Services' three planned workshops on mental health in student athletes during the pandemic.

Photo: Courtesy/Emerson Athletics

Monday was the first of Emerson’s Counseling and Psychological Services’ three planned workshops on mental health in student athletes during the pandemic.

By José Ríos

With the fall and winter sports season canceled and the future of the spring uncertain, Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services partnered with the Emerson Athletics Department to address the mental strain the COVID-19 pandemic has on student-athletes. 

The Student-Athlete Workshop Series: Resiliency Through COVID-19 is open to all Emerson student-athletes, and it will be divided into three separate workshops. The first workshop, which focused on the loss of an athlete’s identity after a cancelled season, took place on Monday, Feb. 1.

“I think for a lot of people, it’s really, really a hard time, and not everybody’s comfortable talking about it right now,” men’s volleyball captain Sam Willinger said. “But the goal is to kind of just support people as best as they can.”

The idea for the series came during the fall, according to Kyle Rundles, the associate director of counseling services. 

“During a meeting last semester, we began to discuss the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on student-athletes, some of whom are facing the loss of multiple seasons in their sport,” Rundles said in an interview. “Athletic identity was chosen as the first topic to build a community foundation to move forward with other topics in the series—processing grief and fostering resilience.” 

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The adjustments to COVID-19 vary from person to person, but Rundles said the community of athletes can point out a more clear and obvious loss—the fall and winter sports seasons.

“Student-athletes are one of many groups facing specific loss during the pandemic,” Rundles said. “I think it’s important to come together and seek resiliency strategies together while also processing specific losses.”

The college launched the series due to the potentially traumatizing loss of a season for athletes. For student-athletes, their sport can turn from a simple activity into part of their identities. Collegiate sports also demand a significant time commitment, and losing this commitment can create a level of confusion within athletes, as discussed during the panel.

Erin Brennen, senior associate director of athletics, helped construct the workshops. Brennen said the loss of the season is especially hard for student-athletes because they have to adapt to life without the sport that typically occupied most of their time. 

“You’re not getting up and going to the gym every day; you don’t have practice, so it’s, ‘How do I see myself without this big part of who I am?’” Brennen said during the workshop. “It’s been such a part of my life for 15, 18, 20 years, and how do I make that shift [forward]? And what happened traumatically, it’s hard to make that shift.”

Beyond providing athletes a space to discuss the various issues that come from this loss, ECAPS also wrote a blog post on Emerson Athletics’ website. The blog not only explains how student-athletes may be feeling after loss of their seasons, but it also clarifies the seven stages of grief—shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. 

“You may have feelings that are completely different [than] your friends and teammates, and please know that this is okay,” the blog post stated. 

Willinger said the importance of having these workshops relates to how emotionally connected athletes can be to their sport. He stressed that athletes tend to have a lot of emotions to manage despite popular misconceptions such as, “‘we don’t have problems, we’re just athletes—we’re free,’” said Willinger, “‘Or we’re not in touch with our emotions.’”

“I think athletes, if anything, are very in touch with at least a couple of their emotions,” Willinger said in an interview. “Maybe not all of them, but they’re very in touch with anger, fear, goal-setting. There are so many things that go into being an athlete that actively play on your mental health.” 

For Brennen, the blog and workshops focus on providing aid to the Emerson athletic community amid these uncertain times.

“We want to make sure we’re providing all the resources we can for support for the student-athletes,” Brennen said. “So, if one student-athlete benefits from this, that’s what I’m looking for.”

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