Pandemic, Social & Emotional Learning While researchers are beginning to study the impacts of COVID-19 on youth across the globe, the impacts of the pandemic on Canadian youth are still not fully understood. However, it can be hypothesized that because physical activity and social connection are important determinants of mental health, student-athletes may have experienced […]23 Nov 2023
The Impact of COVID-19 on High School Athletes
January 25, 2023
Pandemic, Social & Emotional Learning
While researchers are beginning to study the impacts of COVID-19 on youth across the globe, the impacts of the pandemic on Canadian youth are still not fully understood. However, it can be hypothesized that because physical activity and social connection are important determinants of mental health, student-athletes may have experienced more significant negative impacts to their mental health compared to youth who were not previously involved in team sports. Therefore, “the aim of this study was to describe and interpret Canadian high school student-athletes’ experiences with physical activity, mental health, and social connections during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Universal Impact of COVID-19 on Students
While the pandemic impacted each individual differently, previous research reveals that impacts also vary by nation. “A study of parents in Italy and Spain reported that >85% of their children decreased physical activity levels, increased screen time, and increased maladaptive emotional and behavioural signs (Moray House School of Education and Sport). In Germany, increased isolation and decreased social connections were associated with increased psychological distress (University of Calgary). In China, 40% of youth experienced psychological distress (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder [14%], negative coping, stress) after COVID-19 was announced as a public health emergency (University of Calgary).”
COVID-19 Isolation Led Students to Develop Creative Ways to Exercise
The researchers sampled twenty high school student-athletes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada who were engaged in one of 10 high-risk concussion sports (ex: rugby, ice hockey, soccer, etc.). Participants were then interviewed, using a semi-structured model, via phone or zoom once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in Alberta in June 2020.
Shepherd et al. found that most participants experienced feelings of anxiousness, shock, and fear during the onset of the pandemic. The study also revealed that many student-athletes felt restless as they lost their sport as an energy outlet. Some additional findings include a decrease in social connections as a result of lockdown restrictions and a lack of overall physical activity due to the inability to access equipment or a decrease in motivation. For those students who were unable to access training equipment specific to their sport, many resorted to alternative methods of exercise, such as running and online training plans, while others got creative and adapted household items to suit their training needs. Many participants shared that support and encouragement from teammates, family, and friends, were beneficial to their engagement in physical activity. Many of the surveyed athletes reported that team calls and online workouts helped to hold them accountable in their training. However, it was apparent that social media and social distancing were not a replacement for social connection and participants reported that relying on digital methods of communication was “tiresome.” Once restrictions were lifted, most participants reported that their physical activity increased.
Solutions for the Future
Ultimately, should there be more lockdown restrictions in the future, Shepherd et al.’s study reveals the need for increased flexibility for student-athletes to access methods of physical activity, such as real-time virtual training sessions that can be completed with little or no equipment. Mental health resources should also be promoted to student-athletes, including access to peer support, mentorship, and registered mental health professionals. If weather permits, access to outdoor public spaces may provide more opportunities for physical engagement and social connection, as well as foster a sense of community and normalcy.
It is important to note that “although the study asked about changes in mental health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic[…], the researchers did not inquire about participants’ natural fluctuation in mental health and thus alterations in mental health reporting may have been due to external factors (e.g., seasonal changes).”
“Many participants shared that family, friend, and teammate support and encourage-
ment (e.g. verbal praise) were more important to their engagement in physical activity during the pandemic than prior to the pandemic.”
“The design of online training programs should include exercises that can be completed
with limited or no equipment. This may help to reduce potential barriers, such as lower family socio-economic status, to participation in physical activity at home.”
“Although social media allowed for connections throughout COVID-19, the heavy reliance
on social media may have negative health consequences for youth. Participants in this
study shared that the reliance on social media became tiresome, and that reliance on it
impacted their ability to communicate using non-verbal channels with their peers.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased that school is more than just a place to learn academically. Rather, school also serves as a space for students to socially interact with their peers and teammates, developing friendships and engaging in multiple means of communication and self-expression. As the world moves forward into a post-pandemic era, it is imperative that educators strategically build opportunities for social interaction as a way for students to continue to develop the social skills needed to foster strong, in-person, social connections that are beneficial for mental health and well-being.
Shepherd, H. A., Evans, T., Gupta, S., McDonough, M. H., Doyle-Baker, P., Belton, K. L., Karmali, S., Pawer, S., Hadly, G., Pike, I., Adams, S. A., Babul, S., Yeates, K. O., Kopala-Sibley, D. C., Schneider, K. J., Cowle, S., Fuselli, P., Emery, C. A., & Black, A. M. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 on High School Student-Athlete Experiences with Physical Activity, Mental Health, and Social Connection. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(7), 3515. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18073515