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Outcompeting the Pandemic: Redefining the Athletic Challenge

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Yeshiva University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute vie for the opening tipoff during a NCAA Division III men's tournament first-round game at Johns Hopkins University's Goldfarb Gymnasium Friday in Baltimore. The university held the tournament without spectators after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Maryland. Photo: AP

By Doria Weiss, Olivia Cullen, Doug Elwood, MD |

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Michael Phelps stood at the starting block for the 400m individual medley, and like he always did, took his right, then left headphone off and did his double-arm swing. Then, he broke another world record.  

Routines are deeply ingrained in sports, countless hours of practice and repetition go into perfecting awareness. Many players eat, sleep, and study together to build unity and cohesiveness. Athletes relish patterns and use them to achieve success.  

So what happens when those behaviors are stripped away as in the case of COVID-19?  

In March, as the pandemic spread, sports suddenly disappeared, but the inexorable toll this extended time out is causing on habits and identity continues to play out this fall.  

Christian Montano, former Tulane now NFL football player, captures the more profound effects of the pandemic on his identity: “If I am not a football player, who am I?”  

As leagues cancel their seasons, athletes are left hanging. This is not an injury from which you can rehabilitate; to the contrary, the pandemic is a lights-out, go-home-and-sit event with no end in sight for most athletes.  

This is a crushing blow to the athletic identity. Corey Millhouse, a rising lacrosse senior at top ranked Loyola University Maryland, states: “Everything was my team, my progress, the next game, the relentless chase for wins and a championship. Now, there’s nothing. It’s hard for me to even stay in shape.” Injuries and retirement are well documented to contribute to loss of self-worth. But what about a pandemic?  

Rob Elwood, who has spent his career coaching and advising individuals and teams, describes sports as providing a “compass” for daily activity and goal-setting. “Athletes are used to having a benchmark,” he states. “Sports provide so many positives in life because every day is a chance to reset and to improve. With the pandemic, these steps have been thrown into disarray if not completely nullified.”  

Like a long line of dominoes, COVID-19 knocked out sports in the spring in a spellbinding cascade of bad news for athletics that now is repeating.  

The uncertainty that has arisen since the spring is overwhelming. “For every answer, there are three more questions,” says Montano. “If the NCAA pushes the season, will the NFL also change? Will scholarships hold? And this is not just about the sport itself. Like so many athletes, sports provides a way out of challenging home environments — now they are right back in it.” Sports provides a structure and a set of rules and support, without which many athletes suffer.  

The deleterious consequences of the pandemic are in many cases tangible. Sarah Patillo, a Texas junior high school soccer player, states: “I think the biggest impact COVID-19 has had on sports for me is recruiting. There’s a dead period now so I can’t visit and they can’t watch me play. How can they make decisions without these steps?” 

The athletic landscape is currently in shambles and leading to other negative outcomes. Across all NCAA levels, more than 130 programs have been cut in recent months.  

“The unknown is extremely difficult to take,” says Elwood. “It’s very contradictory to everything athletes do.”  

Used to adversity, athletes are nonetheless not used to a silent competitor that does not have a best time, a star player, or an amazing defense. Instead, the competition is an assault on their identities. Elwood says plainly, “This is a ‘gut check’ of the highest magnitude.” 

An NCAA Student-Athlete survey demonstrates increased sleep difficulties, sadness, lack of focus, and anxiety, which can have disproportionate effects. Rates of mental health concerns were 150% to 250% higher than that historically reported1. Likewise, surveys of Olympic athletes found major disruptions in mental health.  

When lacrosse was stripped from Millhouse, he described the transition he had to make, saying: “My happiness came from my success on the field. Once that structure was taken from me, I was less motivated to do everything.” 

Athletes, parents, and coaches should be acutely aware of this impact. Montano says he has learned more than ever during this crisis to “control what you can control. If there is anything in your control, make the most out of it. Keep short-term goals alive and prominent in your life.” 

Despite the challenges this experience has created, it is also perhaps an opportunity. Understanding one’s identity and learning to expand and control it may just be the silver lining that sets up a tremendous comeback.  

  1. NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being Study. (2020, May 22). Retrieved from http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/ncaa-student-athlete-covid-19-well-being-study 

The three authors are all current or former athletes and work at a company dedicated to improving health and well-being, where Dr. Elwood is the Chief Medical Officer. 

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