Photo caption: BASKETBALL COURT inside of Morgan Park High School
This is part two of a three-part series examining how high schools and student-athletes adapted to the shutdown of their sports programs and the adjustment of a new normal in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on academics and mental health was greater than expected for some.
By Bobby Cameron
School closures, sports cancellations, social isolation and economic hardships amid the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the mental health of athletes. They also played a factor, at times surprisingly positive, academic-wise for players.
More than half of student-athletes have reported experiencing anxiety and depression due to the pandemic, according to a survey by the NCAA. The survey also found that those who had their seasons canceled or postponed were more likely to report mental health concerns.
And a study by the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that student-athletes who had their season canceled reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress than those who were able to continue with their sports activities.
“Practices and team meetings went from in-person to virtual. The first couple of times seemed normal because it was fresh. But then it started getting stale because not only were students virtual all day, they needed to stay online after school. It wasn’t the same, and Zoom fatigue started to set in,” said Chicago Public Schools’ Athletic Program Administrator, Cynthia Ervin.
Calvin Tolliver, head football coach at Rockford University, echoed her sentiments. He recognized the lingering fatigue in recent high school grads who came to the University.
“At first the classroom was all they knew. Then not being in the classroom and being virtual took some getting used to. They started working at their own pace, or not at all. They fell into that unfortunate habit of no real oversight, and they’ll get to it when they get to it. Fast forward and they’re being told to be back in a classroom. They had to get back used to having oversight and not slacking off. The mental gymnastics that were going on were a bit much for the athletes,” said Tolliver.
Transitioning from the consistency of a classroom to an inconsistency of a screen in your home told the main story.
“The expectation is that kids were all of a sudden going to do fine or do better with virtual instruction when they’ve never had an online class. I didn’t have an online class until college. And some people learn differently than others,” said Chris Gardner, head boys’ basketball coach at Morgan Park.
Also playing a factor on the added stress was limited internet access. Some kids were trying to get into being virtual because of the safety factor, but a spotty connection, or no connection, increasingly frustrated students.
“You must factor internet access into it. Not everyone had it, despite various efforts to make sure every CPS household had Wi-Fi capabilities,” said Ervin.
An estimated 14.5 percent of households in Chicago did not have internet service as of 2019. This represents a decrease from 2018, when an estimated 16.5 percent of households in Chicago did not have internet service, according to the 2020 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
While the pandemic may have increased the number of households without internet service, many families faced financial hardships and challenges with remote learning and work-from-home arrangements.
“Most of the kids that I had that year didn’t have internet at home. Most of the kids that I talked to, I couldn’t talk to them unless they were on somebody’s Wi-Fi. Some didn’t have the internet at home. So, expecting them to log on every day, at first period which is at 7:45 a.m. when they weren’t getting to school on time for the first period. It didn’t add up … it wasn’t reasonable,” said Gardner.
Despite virtual learning challenges associated with tech access, some athletes were able to hone in on their academics to make them stronger prospects for college coaches.
“They must maintain certain grades to qualify to stay on the team. There was more time for tutoring. Any help they needed, the teachers were more available to them than they would be in person. I heard from many coaches who saw a boost in grades from some players,” said Ervin, adding, “It was kind of a blessing in disguise because some college programs lean heavily on grades.”
Rockford, a Division III school, doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, but does offer academic funding.
“Everything we evaluate about athletic prospects is based on their grades. We know about their skills on the field, but we reward them for their success in the classroom,” said Tolliver.