Michigan State Athletes Reflect On Mental Health Challenges During COVID Pandemic
Self-isolation, online school and coping with the unknown have been part of the new normal.
Michigan State redshirt sophomore volleyball player Talia Edmonds quarantined five times over the past year. Four of those were linked to contract tracing, while just one was due to her own positive COVID-19 test.
“Imagine being in a hotel room, you have COVID, you’re sick and you can’t leave, you can’t go anywhere, all they could do was open their windows,” Edmonds said of her and her teammates’ quarantines at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing. “Being by yourself and not being able to have any interaction for up to 10 days is really mentally taxing in a way…It was basically like living in a box and so that was one of the parts that was really mentally straining.”
“One of the things that I feel like is not talked about enough is the amount of times we (student-athletes) have to go into self-quarantine or isolation,” she said.
Those quarantine periods, combined with COVID testing 3-6 days per week and dealing with the unknown associated with the pandemic placed a mental toll on many student-athletes during the 2020-21 school year.
Recently released NCAA research showed that 36% of female athletes and 22% of male athletes listed COVID-19 health concerns as a factor negatively impacting their mental health.
Of those mental health concerns, 48% of seniors and 41% of juniors, sophomores and freshmen felt overwhelmed by what they had to do constantly or mostly every day. Around 27% of seniors and 22% of juniors, sophomores and freshman responded with feeling overwhelming anxiety at the same frequency.
According to a report released by the NCAA in February 2021, in most instances, “the rates of reported mental health concerns experienced within the last month were 1.5 to two times higher than have been historically reported by NCAA student-athletes in pre-pandemic studies.”
As the year ends, sports seasons conclude and vaccines seemingly show a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, MSU athletes reflected on their experiences during this pandemic.
Coping with the isolation
For MSU gymnast Lea Mitchell, one of her favorite parts of competing is seeing her parents watch and cheer for her from the stands.
This season, Mitchell’s parents, who are from southern Florida, made it out to just one meet due to travel restrictions and the ultimate cancelation of the gymnastics season in early March.
“A lot of people were frustrated, not at each other, but just at the pandemic in general,” Mitchell said of her teams’ reaction to the gymnastics season cancelation. “Personally, it was very heartbreaking and sad, just maybe because it was my senior year and you work 17-plus years for this moment and for it to be cut short was just heartbreaking.”
After several shutdowns put their preparation on pause, the gymnastics team canceled its season for the safety of the program. Mitchell said she understood the logistics of the decision but given they were the only Big Ten program to not finish the season made it difficult for her and her teammates to cope with.
Like Mitchell’s Florida roots, senior softball player Shae Schreckengost also comes from the south. Schreckengost’s family is from Louisiana and when she traveled home for the December holiday break to see her family for the first time in months, the adjustment to different statewide restrictions was difficult.
“It was very hard to go home because in the south mask restrictions and rules and people who abide by them are just a lot more lax than they are here,” Schreckengost said. “You could go into a grocery store and no one’s wearing a mask and you feel very vulnerable, you feel very exposed.”
Schreckengost, along with any athlete who opted to travel home to see family during the holiday break, was required to quarantine for seven days upon their arrival back in East Lansing.
Senior volleyball player Meredith Norris didn’t have to travel as far to reach her hometown of Corunna, Michigan, but still acknowledged the difficulties of quarantine.
“Something that’s not talked about enough is the isolating part of it (quarantine) and how taxing that can be on young generations,” Norris said. “Even though we’re not ‘getting sick’ the most, I think it does still have similar impacts.”
Struggling to balance online school
When learning moved to a virtual format in March 2020, many students admittedly felt as if they could take a sigh of relief. Edmonds remembered the announcement came during volleyball practice; her teammates and her joined in a moment of excitement from the news.
Now, over one year later, an NCAA study showed that student-athletes in fully-virtual learning environments reported feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious and lonely more than student-athletes studying in-person. These findings were echoed by many MSU athletes.
“At first, I thought everything being online would make it easier but honestly I think it was harder because you definitely had to time manage more,” Mitchell said. “If you were to go to in-person classes your professors could remind you this assignment is due or they could see that their students are stressed and maybe push the dates back, but online there’s no leniency and it’s a lot more busy work.”
In her first semester of graduate school at MSU, Norris felt similarly, voicing heightened busy work as a difficult task to maintain alongside practices and games. She also acknowledged missing the on-campus experience.
“I think a lot of our girls have been missing the connection that would get if you were going to in-person class,” Norris said. “As much as it may sound weird, I really do miss in person class because I got to go connect with my peers.”
COVID puts a damper in career planning
In summer 2020, Schreckengost had landed her dream internship. As a zoology major with a concentration in marine biology Schreckengost had planned to spend the summer at the University of Southern Mississippi doing hands-on shark research.
The gig was the perfect step towards her ideal career, until it got moved to an online format due to the pandemic.
“I totally lost that hands-on experience with sharks that I really would have liked,” Schreckengost said. “It wasn’t an in-person internship which was really unfortunate because I felt like it would have been amazing to do.”
Schreckengost isn’t alone. According to NCAA research, 62% of seniors said COVID-19 had a “Strong negative/Somewhat negative” impact on their career planning. Of seniors, 46% also responded with losing or opting out of a job or internship.
The struggles with career planning and unusual seasons played a part in Mitchell and MSU wrestler Jake Tucker’s decisions to take advantage of their additional year of collegiate eligibility next season. Both voiced wanting to end their careers on a higher note as a factor in that decision.
“I think I did well this year, but I don’t think the sport is done with me and I don’t think I’m done with it either,” Tucker said of his decision.
Coping with the unknown
Amid isolation, virtual classes and rocky post-graduation planning, all athletes echoed one common struggle for the past year: the unknown.
During his five years with MSU wrestling, every season has been essentially the same for Tucker. He would arrive on campus, start preseason training, then begin the season in November until March and do it all over again. This season was different, and Tucker admittedly struggled with that.
“I thrive when I have the same schedule laid out, that’s when I do better but this year it was a lot different,” Tucker said. “We didn’t know when our workouts were or if there were even going to be workouts. We had to test all the time and if one of the tests went wrong, we’re shut down for two weeks so everything was up in the air.”
Schedules for spring sports, and postponed fall sports, were not released until early January. This question mark left athletes like Mitchell in a stressed state.
“The biggest thing that a lot of my teammates and I struggled with was just the fear of not knowing what was going to happen,” Mitchell said. “There were times even back in November when people were saying we were having a season but then the next day we’re not having a season, so we just had to keep the mindset of being prepared no matter what.”
Norris described herself as a Type-A, organized individual, therefore she struggled in similar ways to Tucker and had to force herself to look at this year through a more positive lens.
“Moving through the summer and the fall I really had to shift my mindset to ‘This is what your senior season is supposed to look like’ to, ‘Be grateful that you’re getting a senior season,’” Norris said. “Any day we get into the gym is a good day.”
Any day in the gym is a good day, and according to Tucker even the ones out of it will make him and his peers stronger in the end.
“This has tested a lot of us, and I think we’re all going to be better in the end,” Tucker said. “It’s just how you respond to it and I’m excited for next year.”